'Wodehouse': Finding Traces of Wooster in the Creator of Jeeves
Though it is standard operating procedure for a biography
to begin with its subject's great-great-grandparents,
Robert McCrum's "Wodehouse" takes another tack. It begins
with the most ruinous episode in its subject's life, the
May 1940 run-in with German troops that led to Wodehouse's
incarceration and all but destroyed his career.
At the Nazis' behest, Wodehouse was willing to look on the
bright side of this experience - and to make radio
broadcasts attesting to being in prison camp as "in many
ways quite an agreeable experience." With his British
homeland in grave peril, he went on to tell the world
jocularly: "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 book then flashes back to Wodehouse's beginnings. And
the rest unfolds in chronological order. But it is easy to
see why Mr. McCrum chooses to lead off with this crisis.
For one thing, it shaped Wodehouse's destiny. ("Isn't it
the damnedest thing, how Fate lurks to sock you with the
stuffed eelskin?" he would remark.) And for another, it
leaps out incongruously from a life otherwise devoted to
grinding workaholism and peripatetic travel. However
immensely lovable Wodehouse's writing is, it was not the
output of an immensely lovable man.
"Fans who contrived to meet him for drinks or dinner waited
in vain for the flow of witty anecdote and priceless comic
observation to begin," Mr. McCrum notes. Frank
Crowninshield, Wodehouse's editor at Vanity Fair, called
him "a stodgy and colorless Englishman; silent, careful
with his money, self-effacing, slow-witted and matter of
fact." Mr. Crowninshield added insult to injury by saying,
"I never heard him utter a clever, let alone brilliant,
The great loves of Wodehouse's life included Pekingese
dogs, lucrative work, golf, his boarding school's rugby
team and his stepdaughter Leonora, a k a "dearest, darling
Snorkles." (His own pet moniker was Plum, or Plummie, from
a childhood mispronunciation of Pelham, his given name.)
And "to the end of his life Wodehouse was always
particularly at home in places that to others would have
seemed nondescript, bland and incorrigibly suburban."
What's more, "a deafening silence surrounds his sexual
life," the author writes. He had a long, separate-bedrooms
marriage to the former Ethel May Wayman, after a courtship
so brief that he mistook her name to be Ethel Milton. A
brief flirtation with a chorus girl was thought to be
"Plum's one wild oat."
So Mr. McCrum, the literary editor of The Observer, faces
formidable obstacles here - not least of them the existence
of numerous other Wodehouse biographies, including a couple
of recent ones. But he surmounts them with an invaluable
portrait, thanks to a broad, incisive and complex
understanding of Wodehouse's psyche. He also adroitly
balances analysis of life and literature, mingling them
aptly when necessary. "Jeevesian in his professional life,"
Mr. McCrum writes, "it was his fate to be Woosterish in
Jeeves and Wooster, as Wodehouse's delighted readers know,
are the impeccable butler and the "tall, debonair Edwardian
butterfly" who is only nominally his superior. A sample
exchange, circa World War I:
"How's the weather, Jeeves?"
"Exceptionally clement, sir."
"Anything in the papers?"
"Some slight friction threatening in the Balkans, sir.
It's not difficult to see how the creator of this dialogue
would have an ostrich's instincts for ignoring the perils
of the wider world.
In accounting for how Wodehouse's character took shape, Mr.
McCrum describes a lonely, self-sufficient boyhood and the
habits it would instill. Between the ages of 3 and 15,
Wodehouse saw his parents for barely six months and
developed a compensating devotion to Dulwich College, the
school that nurtured him. "Mentally, I seem not to have
progressed a step since I was 18," he said,
After being denied the opportunity to attend college and
sent to work at a bank, he set to work writing his way out
of the doldrums. His writing was popular and lucrative
almost from the start. And he was astonishingly prolific:
during a single decade, he composed the lyrics for 12
musicals, wrote or adapted 4 plays and published 20 books.
He also wrote "additional dialogue" for some movies, though
he claimed this placed him "just above the man who works
the wind machine." He moved at such a fever pitch that Page
174 of this book, for instance, has him living in five
Mr. McCrum moves diligently through the long list of
Wodehouse's credits and such less-than-scintillating
matters as his tax problems. But he places as much emphasis
as possible on foreshadowing and examining the drama of
Wodehouse's World War II undoing. He traces the events that
led from the author's capture ("Don't look now, but there
comes the German army," he claimed that his wife said to
him) to the Germans' realizing how valuable Wodehouse would
be as a propaganda tool.
The radio broadcasts that he made from Berlin, and the
compensatory luxury in which he lived during most of the
war, would lead Winston Churchill to say later: "If there
is no charge against him, he can live secluded in some
place or go to hell as soon as there is a vacant passage."
He never returned to England after that and spent his
declining years on Long Island.
But Mr. McCrum makes a sad and persuasive case that
Wodehouse's obliviousness was real. Here, after all, was a
man who could see a woman shot in Paris and then write to a
friend that "it was all very exciting, but no good to me
from a writing point of view." Though Wodehouse was
viciously excoriated at the time of the broadcasts, this
book takes the revisionist view (shared by George Orwell,
Evelyn Waugh and John Le Carrˆ among others) that
stupidity, however colossal, is not evil. And that
Wodehouse, who was officially forgiven with a knighthood
shortly before his death in 1975 at age 93, left a body of
work that can speak lovably for itself.