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The Hindu 3 April 2005

The unknown Wodehouse

S. RAMACHANDER

SIR PELHAM GRENVILLE WODEHOUSE (Plum) is a colossus amongst literary geniuses of the recent century. His appeal has extended far beyond the British Isles, and to four succeeding generations; it outlasted both the author and the British Empire of which his family was an archetypal product. As the creator of immortal eccentrics ║ Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, Lord Emsworth, Aunt Agatha, and Mr. Mulliner ║ his literary fame needs little elaboration. Though the charmed lives of the airy and flippant youth, with names like Catsmeat, Barmy and Pongo, are familiar to the aficionados, not much is known in depth about his own. This gap is now fully explored in Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum, the literary editor of The Observer, London.

Typical childhood

Wodehouse's father came from a long, robust lineage and was a colonial magistrate in Hong Kong. So, Plum and his brothers, like many boys of that age, were sent to boarding schools early, and were handed around a succession of aunts during the holidays. This experience of missing the security and comfort of a home of one's own, not to mention maternal warmth, left fewer marks on PGW than it did on others of his kind. He fortunately had a brother as schoolmate at his beloved Dulwich College, in the green suburbs of London. Here he absorbed the manly virtues of an Edwardian public school boy ║ playing the game by the rules, unswervingly loyal to the House and the School; and bearing life's vicissitudes with a permanent mask of courtesy and casual, good-humoured banter. The worst sin of all was "side" ║ showing off either wealth or intellectual superiority. Living their waking hours in an all-male community, they remained schoolboys at heart and in mind. From public school, to Oxbridge and beyond, to the gentlemen's clubs of the West End, Westminster and Whitehall, they carried an insular repertoire of dormitory jokes and playing-field patois. Wodehouse's life was cast truly in this mould.

Plum sacrificed his assured university place only because his father's declining finances could not run to funding more than one son through Oxford at once. As with everything else, he took this with characteristic, stoical humour. After two years as a bank clerk he moved to writing a regular newspaper column and then to short stories for popular magazines. He never looked back. A description in the years just before the First War remains remarkably prophetic. "In many respects (he) was a conventional English public school boy (diffident, games-mad, awkward with girls over educated in the classics); quiet, thoughtful, ambitious and single minded". His loyalty was exceptional towards friends such as Bill Townsend, with whom he maintained a prodigious lifelong correspondence, which he judiciously re-jigged into Performing Flea decades later. Unknown even to his wife Ethel, he supported the schoolmate financially through an indifferent literary career. Townsend provides the first authentic picture of Wodehouse: even from the age of 17, "Plum's talk was exhilarating... He had decided to write. He never swerved". Contrary to popular imagination, Wodehouse was not an uproariously funny man to meet; but was still good company till the end, known for exceptional gentleness, courtesy, good humour and an almost incredible inability to nurse grievances.

Professional beginnings

Wodehouse veered away from schoolboy cricket stories to short stories in the Saturday Evening Post in America. Magazine journalism supported authors in that glorious age, paying as much as $1500 for a story and more than $20,000 for a novel. Wodehouse's next stop was to explore the flourishing musical comedy scene along with Guy Bolton. Many of their joint creations set the standard for Broadway hits during the carefree days before and after that war. From this followed a series of novels about the racy, brittle and comic lives of Bright Young Things, of the sort that were so well parodied by other great writers of the age like Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley.

Meanwhile he polished his craft by a succession of novels written steadily at the rate of one per year. As he put it himself, Wodehouse assembled his fairy-tale characters rather like those in a musical comedy, treating chapters like scenes from a stage show. This also gave full play to his remarkable talent for dialogue and intricate plots. He confided to friends what a sweat it was to write the eighty thousand words or more to make up a novel. He was a firm believer in cutting and re-editing ruthlessly to suit the length required. In the austere decade after the Second World War, he amazingly went through a period of self-doubt when the demand for his kind of writing waned on both sides of the Atlantic.

Wodehouse was an assured and mature genius and yet, deep down, he yearned for appreciation and security. He was remarkably disciplined and kept the same schedule for over 60 years. Rising at half past seven, he would do the "daily dozen" stretching exercises, breakfast off toast marmalade and a mug of tea; and after his first pipe of the day, repair to his study and work steadily from nine up to a very English lunch. Then he would go for an hour-long walk, followed by tea at four, a little snooze, bath, more work and an evening cocktail before dinner. He would than read himself to sleep. Even in his ninth decade Wodehouse steadily wrote a thousand words a day. As a younger man his record was 27 pages of Thank You Jeeves in one day!

Wodehouse remained completely aloof from the tumult of the world, unable to comprehend the cads, schemers and plotters. This incredible innocence led to the saddest episode of all ║ the talks he gave over the Nazi radio at the height of Hitler's war. During the early days of the war the French village where Ethel and Plum were staying was overrun by the occupying German forces. Interned in a cramped space along with citizens of enemy nations, Wodehouse learnt to put up with a stark and basic existence where food was scarce and it was always freezing. Yet his diary, written in noisy dormitory cells, shows little hatred or pain and is couched in Bertie Wooster-like frivolity. Few realised that the amiable old Englishman writing away furiously in their midst was the foremost humorist of the age.

A German official, who had grown to like him and realised the potential of a celebrity in his charge, asked him if he would mind talking to his audiences in America (which was still a neutral nation) on the radio. Excited at the prospect of reaching his readers, friends and family to tell them that he was alive and well, Wodehouse readily agreed. That was his single, tragic faux pas. In his astonishing innocence and complete indifference to geopolitics, he believed that he was merely practising his craft, helping to ease the tension with Wooster-like reflections on camp life ║ and not committing a grave indiscretion. There was some good in people everywhere, so even some Germans could be "friendly coves".

A black cloud

Predictably, the talks created unprecedented hysteria in war-ravaged Britain and raised a storm in Parliament and the Press. His friends rose to the defence of poor Plum "making an ass of himself" but deserving at worst only a severe rap on the knuckles; others took the extreme view that he ought to be tried as a traitor. Muddied by misguided patriotism, this controversy hung like a black cloud over his life, until the British establishment got over it sufficiently to make Sir Plum a knight at 93. This biography, enriched with copious references, establishes the true nature and extent of Plum's unintended crime and its impact. It is a scholarly piece of research into the life of one of the kindest, gentlest and simplest geniuses to adorn the literary scene of the last century ║ and a sumptuous addition to the addict's bookshelf.

The officer deputed by MI6 after the War to investigate the affair was Malcolm Muggeridge, who, despite his initial bias against the elitist class, came instantly under Plum's spell, enchanted by his candour, naivetę, and warmth. His words of shining clarity could be a fitting epitaph: Plum "was ill fitted to live in an age of ideological conflict... just does not react to human beings in that sort of way, and never seems to hate anyone... such a temperament unfits him to be a good citizen in the mid twentieth century... It is not that he is other-worldly or unworldly so much as that he is a-worldly; a born neutral".

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2008. Established 04/04/1996.