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In praise of aunts
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Financial Times, 4 September 2004

In praise of aunts

David Gilmour

P. G. Wodehouse rivalled Rudyard Kipling in the diversity of his fan club. Devotees of "If" might span the world from Woodrow Wilson in the White House to the King of Siam in Bangkok, but Wodehouse can command the admiration of such enemies of his country as Kaiser Wilhelm and Gerry Adams. Why people should enjoy reading about a society they want to hurt is a mystery. It is certainly rather macabre to picture the exiled German monarch chuckling over characters whose prototypes - the public schoolboys of Edwardian England - he had helped to wipe out.

Kipling's appeal owed much to his different voices, the voices of Tommy Atkins and the merchant mariners, of Simla and the youth of the new Dominions. But Wodehouse sang with only one voice, the voice of comic innocence. His 96 books belong to a single world divided into continents ruled by Mr Mulliner from his pub, by the imperturbable Psmith, the optimistic Ukridge, the absent-minded Lord Emsworth and - in the largest and most fertile of the territories - by Jeeves and Bertie Wooster.

These continents coexisted happily, patiently waiting their turn to attract their creator's attention, and remained almost immune to the changes in the real world. After the second world war Wodehouse wondered, "What the devil does one write about these days, if one is a specialist on country houses and butlers, both of which have ceased to exist?" But he soon realised it was better to "keep the flag flying as regards earls and butlers" rather than attempt anything modern. In 1974, 55 years after the immortal butler had first appeared, he was still writing about Jeeves.

Wodehouse would have understood the problem he presents his biographers, viz that for him, more than for any other writer one can think of, his work was his life. Apart from a spectacular misjudgment at the age of 59, when he was an internee in Germany, his life was uneventful. He did not get pissed or go down and out; he did not fight in the first world war or get worked up about Spain; he left India and Africa alone; he had no love affairs with men or with women, and he seems not to have gone to bed with anybody, not even his wife Ethel.

Instead he had a childhood, during which he was ignored by his parents, went to a public school, where he was happy, worked in a bank, which he hated, and soon broke loose to become a writer. After that, as Robert McCrum observes in this splendid biography, "the story of these years is work, work and more work". Dogs also come into the story - their deaths were almost the only events that aroused his emotions - and so do his wife (at meals) and sometimes the odd friend with whom he walks along the beach or to the post office on Long Island. Books are another ingredient. "As life goes by," he ruminated to a pal, "don't you find that all you need is about two real friends, a regular supply of books, and a Peke?" As a septuagenarian he added cats, remarking that "dogs and cats - and of course Ethel - (were) the only people worth associating with".

A biographer of Wodehouse could become a mere chronicler of his transatlantic voyages, a recorder of his collaborations on Broadway and in Hollywood, an outliner of plots for his 96 books, and a compiler of all his short stories, journalism and minor works. He or she might easily feel that there is nothing to say about the writer's life in the 1920s apart from the 12 musicals for which he wrote the lyrics, the four plays he wrote or adapted, and the 20 books he published in London and New York.

Robert McCrum is, fortunately, very much more than just a chronicler. Inquisitive but not intrusive, he admirably fulfils his duties as a biographer. He accompanies his protagonist on his travels, taking him to England, France, America and on his enforced, unfortunate detour to Germany. On the way he explains, illustrates and only seldom speculates. Throughout he is an excellent guide and interpreter of the work, briefly summarising the masterpieces, gently making the connections between the life and the books. He does not psychoanalyse Wodehouse's obsession with aunts but points out that on his mother's side he had eight of them, one of whom inspired both Ukridge's Aunt Julia and Wooster's Aunt Agatha. No wonder Bertram is so nervous "when Aunt is calling to Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps".

When it comes to the Wodehouse bedrooms, McCrum is supremely tactful, suggesting that P.G.'s "diminished sexual appetite" may have been caused by mumps in early adulthood, and only hinting that Ethel compensated with a lot of affairs. Obliged to mention the possibility of homosexuality, McCrum raises the matter in the obliquest of ways, merely quoting someone else's observation that Wodehouse, the most allusive of writers, never referred to Oscar Wilde. Rightly, he refuses to speculate when there is no evidence. The only bedroom antics in this book take place when Ethel is so frightened by a mouse that her husband agrees to spend a short part of one night in her bed.

Wodehouse's life of quiet good-humoured industry might have continued without interruption from 1902, when he left the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, to 1975, when he died at the age of 93, had it not been for his internment in 1940 (he had failed to leave France in time) and his subsequent agreement to make some fairly innocuous broadcasts from Berlin. Like the Dreyfus Affair at the end of the previous century, the Wodehouse broadcasts were a straightforward case of good guys (in this instance, principally Orwell, Waugh and Muggeridge) against bad guys such as W. Connor ("Cassandra" of the Daily Mirror), who ranted on about quislings and 30 pieces of silver, and the Establishment, personified by the attorney-general, Hartley Shawcross (later Bernard Levin's "Shortly Floorcross"), who warned that the writer might be prosecuted if he ever returned to Britain.

Here again McCrum is entirely fair. Wodehouse, he observes, was "incredibly stupid", but he was not treacherous. The novelist admitted he had "made an ass" of himself although he seems never to have quite grasped what he had done. His naivety, his aptitude for retreating to an inner world that touched the real one only randomly is remarkable. No one else could have produced some of the funniest work of his life living next door to Nazi officials in their favourite hotels in Paris and Berlin.

Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum
Viking, 530 pages

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