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Letter reveals Wodehouse's wounds over Nazi broadcasts
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The Observer 3 June 2007

Letter reveals Wodehouse's wounds over Nazi broadcasts

'He felt like a man who, chasing rainbows, has had one of them suddenly turn and bite him in the leg.' The sentence is perfectly formed in the inimitable style of PG Wodehouse. It also resonates with a life-changing event in which Wodehouse himself was bitten by fate.

During the Second World War the creator of upper-class twit Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves made a series of broadcasts in Nazi Germany that caused fury in Britain. Fresh light will be cast on the incident this week when an unpublished letter written by Wodehouse in 1953 is made public for the first time.

In 1940, the writer was captured at his home in France and held by the Nazis in a civilian internment camp in Upper Silesia, now in Poland; he quipped: 'If this is Upper Silesia, what must Lower Silesia be like?' A year later he was taken to Berlin, where he made five humorous talks for radio broadcast in America, before it had entered the war. But when the recordings were heard in Britain, Wodehouse was denounced as a traitor and compared in Parliament to the infamous broadcaster of Nazi propaganda, William Joyce, better known as Lord Haw-Haw.

Wodehouse's reputation never fully recovered from accusations that he agreed to make the recordings to secure his early release. He went into exile in America and was still vilified in some quarters when he died 30 years later, although recent biographers have tended to regard his actions as a politically naive attempt to reassure his many US fans that he was alive and well.

The 1953 letter by Wodehouse, which has been in a private collection in America, shows how the legacy of the broadcasts continued to occupy the author as he strove to salvage his reputation in the post-war years.

It was written in New York and addressed to his publisher, Derek Grimsdick. With the occasional handwritten addition in the margin, it responds to Grimsdick's idea that the scripts of the Berlin broadcasts be published in book form. It also refers to Major EJP Cussen, the MI5 officer who investigated the author's conduct, as 'a priceless ass'. The letter, whose sale price has been set at ?1,600 by Nigel Williams Rare Books for this week's Antiquarian Book Fair at Olympia, west London, underlines Wodehouse's reputation as a comic perfectionist with a forensic eye for detail.

'I certainly agree with you that we ought to print the broadcasts exactly as they were spoken,' he writes, 'with the exception of the fifth...' He goes on to explain that there are discrepancies between the original broadcasts and a later book he wrote about his time in the Nazi internment camp. He admits that in the book he 'elaborated the broadcasts... That is to say, I added funny material wherever I saw an opportunity.'

After the liberation of Paris, Cussen interrogated Wodehouse and, concluding that he did not appear to have been guilty of treasonable conduct, cleared him completely. His name recurs in the letter in relation to the scripts. Wodehouse writes: 'Didn't you think Cussen was a priceless ass? But you ought to have seen him in uniform with his little wooden stick!'

Despite the backlash, Wodehouse, known to friends as Plum, remains one of the most popular and prolific writers in the English language. He produced more than 90 books, wrote hundreds of short stories, adapted straight plays and collaborated on Broadway musicals.

The Jeeves stories have twice been adapted for television, first in the Sixties with the BBC's World of Wooster, starring Ian Carmichael as Bertie Wooster and Dennis Price as Jeeves, then again in the Nineties with ITV's Jeeves and Wooster, which starred Hugh Laurie as Bertie and Stephen Fry as Jeeves.

When Wodehouse made the wartime broadcasts, the journalist William Connor - 'Cassandra' on the Daily Mirror - was commissioned to denounce him both in print and a primetime radio address. Public libraries banned his works. In a letter to the Home Secretary in September 1944, Wodehouse admitted that he had been 'criminally foolish' but said the broadcasts were 'purely comic' and designed to show Americans a group of interned Englishmen keeping up their spirits. But the stigma stuck to the author. He spent the rest of his life in America.

Robert McCrum, author of Wodehouse: A Life and the literary editor of The Observer, hailed the letter as an important find. 'First, it shows his obsession with the issue of the broadcasts and his time in the camp. Second, he refers to his MI5 interrogator as an ass, which is unusual because he normally never gives anything away and is usually diplomatic and insouciant. Third, it's a letter without laughs and shows he's micro-managing the spin of his post-war life.

'Ten years on he was still fighting a rearguard action against his detractors. I think he was really hurt by the row over the broadcasts, though of course, being Wodehouse, the quintessential Englishman, he would never let on.'

Jeeves and beyond

'There is a good deal to be said for internment. It keeps you out of the saloons and gives you time to catch up with your reading... The chief drawback is that it means your being away from home... I feel that when I rejoin my wife, I had better take along a letter of introduction, just to be on the safe side.'
First Berlin broadcast, 1941

'As for Gussie Fink-Nottle, many an experienced undertaker would have been deceived by his appearance and started embalming on sight.'
Right Ho, Jeeves, 1934

'Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the hotel at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.'
The Luck of Bodkins, 1935

Katy Heslop

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