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'Wodehouse': Finding Traces of Wooster in the Creator of Jeeves
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The New York Times 11 November 2004

'Wodehouse': Finding Traces of Wooster in the Creator of Jeeves

Janet Maslin

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, remark."

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 Berlin."

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. Otherwise, nothing."

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, characteristically half-joking.

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 different places.

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.

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2023. Established 04/04/1996.