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The Economist, 18 November 2004

Rum cove, really

A good test of almost any book is to ask whether one would not be better off reading a work by P.G. Wodehouse, and the answer, in this reviewer's opinion, is nearly always "Yes." Robert McCrum, however, has written a book that provokes the answer "Perhaps not." This is high praise indeed.

In many respects Wodehouse was a deeply ordinary man. Born, in 1881, into a "good" family of colonial administrators, he was brought up in England, largely under the auspices of nannies, relations and schoolmasters. Between the ages of three and 15, he saw his parents, who were doing their bit for the empire in Hong Kong, for a total of barely six months. Starved of maternal affection, he grew to treat emotions as dangerous but discovered that sport, and animals, could be substitutes of a kind. Fortunately, school, in particular his public (ie, secondary) school, Dulwich College, was wonderful. Here, for six happy years, he learnt classics, developed a passion for grammar and became something of an athlete. But he emerged a shy young man with few friends, whose hopes of going on to Oxford were dashed when his father, somewhat inexplicably, pleaded poverty. Instead, Wodehouse entered a bank, which he loathed.

The very unordinary aspect of Wodehouse's character was his response to an upbringing that was quite typical for young men of his class and circumstances. Instead of a conventional marriage and a conventional career, or even a conventional death in the first world war, he turned to writing, first about the things he knew well--school, life in a bank--then increasingly about an invented version of the Edwardian world in which he had spent his formative years. This imaginary world was the one that Wodehouse was, in many respects, to inhabit for the rest of his life, and that was to give so much pleasure to his millions of readers.

About most things, and most people, Wodehouse was detached. The exceptions were, first, writing, which was perhaps his greatest love. The second was Ethel, his wife, to whom he was devoted. The third was Leonora, her daughter, whom he adopted, and adored. Leonora's death--in 1944, after a routine operation--was the private blow from which he never recovered. And by then Wodehouse had already suffered a devastating public blow, having done the "loony thing" that was to keep him out of England for the last 34 years of his life and blight his reputation for a generation. This was his readiness to make five broadcasts from Nazi Germany in 1941 about his experiences as an internee.

The hardest tasks for any Wodehouse biographer are the handling of his love life and the degree of culpability to assign to the broadcasting affair. Never flinching from either subject, though never dwelling unduly on the (absent) sex, Mr McCrum draws a picture that is entirely convincing. Wodehouse was clearly capable of love, and it was heterosexual, not homosexual love. But sex was not his thing: he and Ethel had separate bedrooms from the outset and, so far as is known, the pattern was broken only once, when a mouse ran across Ethel's bed in the night, prompting her to call him in to repel boarders.

Just as Wodehouse was evidently asexual, so he was "aworldly", that is, neither worldly nor unworldly, simply uninterested in what was going on around him. He was never completely cut off from reality: he was quite capable, as a young man, of making money doing the conventional stuff of journalism--writing about events--and even in the 1930s he could see the ridiculousness, if not the odiousness, of fascism. But he could not take international politics seriously: it was all a sort of game, of the kind played at school, and a war was simply an away game. Though neither wholly innocent nor wholly naive, he could not see the folly, the sheer bad taste, of making frivolous broadcasts from Berlin when the concentration camps were filling up and his country faced defeat at the hands of the Germans. But did that make Wodehouse pro-Nazi, a collaborator or a traitor? No, no, no; just a fool.

All this Mr McCrum deals with persuasively. If he never quite makes the reader love Wodehouse, that is his subject's fault. Wodehouse was good-natured, eager to please and usually liked. But he was also buttoned up, money-conscious, capable of strange ingratitude and, most disappointingly, never at all funny in conversation. Mr McCrum emphasises Wodehouse's under-appreciated contribution to musical comedy, and of course he pays just tribute to his much better known contribution to literature. If, at the end of it all, the reader still wonders at the link between character and genius, it is the wonderment of awe, not of incomprehension. This biography is unlikely to be bettered.

Wodehouse: A Life. By Robert McCrum. Norton; 384 pages; $27.95. Viking

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