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The Scotsman, 11 September 2004

Bottled Plum

Michael Pye


IT WAS BAD LUCK TO BE 59 AND IN France when the Nazis arrived; to be dragged off from easy seaside living in Le Touquet to disorganised internment camps where your wife couldn't know where you were held. It was worse if you were so famous in America that you were released and allowed to spend your own royalties in Berlin at the grandiose Hotel Adlon, but not allowed to leave Germany for years.

It became scandalous when Pelham Grenville Wodehouse recorded jovial, chatty talks for Nazi radio - this was the time of Dunkirk - in which he joked about internment and said he couldn't bring himself to feel belligerent at all. That scandal is where Robert McCrum opens his show; it's his overture and his big story, Plum's Great Mistake.

When he gets to it, his detailed account of what happened is judicious and well told - Wodehouse's implausible innocence, his certainty that the talks were fine because they'd made his fellow camp inmates laugh, the carefully orchestrated fury that followed in Britain.

But the conventions of the modern literary biographer - dark secrets, dirty linen - bring on a furious fit of harrumphing and throat-clearing in those first pages: we're told that the Second World War "finished Wodehouse", and if it "didn't take away his life" (which rather obviously it didn't since he lived on for 30 years), still it "wrecked it for ever". It's sensational stuff, sensationally silly, and it taints a very good book.

To McCrum, Wodehouse's life on Long Island in his sixties, seventies and eighties - perfect lawns, adopted dogs, beloved wife - becomes an "exile" , something sad, and the fact that he went on writing is "heroic".

But Wodehouse always did choose to spend rather a lot of time in the US. "I sort of shuttled to and fro across the Atlantic," he wrote in 1910. He fell out with his British publishers during the First World War, because of his "unpatriotic" absence stateside. He first lived on Long Island, when he could first afford it, in 1917. And in the early 1920s he found London "dead and depressing": "... have decided from now on to live in America". It's odd McCrum doesn't mention the other reason Wodehouse might have chosen America after the war: maybe he didn't want to surrender more than 90 per cent of his income to a rapacious, mean bureaucracy.

As for ruin and wreckage, Penguin put out one million copies of five Wodehouse novels in 1953 - a prodigious print-run for a man supposedly disgraced and forgotten. The BBC's wartime ban on anything he wrote was quickly set aside when the war ended. The New Yorker said of his decision to become American in the 1950s that it "makes up for our loss of TS Eliot and Henry James combined". It is said Southport Public Library's patriotic decision to burn all their Wodehouse, 90 titles in all, just meant they had to buy back 90 more when the fuss died down.

The truth is that Wodehouse did something implausibly stupid. He had a theatrical's indifference to politics outside his own profession, a blindness that is so general it doesn't quite count as moral blindness, even when there was true evil about and a war against it. Then a pompous political class found a designated victim and ran after him ruthlessly, just to prove they had the power to do it. After which, the file marked him out as the one you condemn; it was always safer, governments decided, to do nothing about Wodehouse.

McCrum gets the point, but he can't stop himself adding a few tabloid headlines and received opinions, which break into his otherwise model biography like speed bumps on a city street. So Plum said of his childhood, "I can't ever remember having been unhappy in those days." "He was in denial," McCrum decides.

Besides, didn't Wodehouse himself ask: "Why do these fellows always think there is something hidden and mysterious behind one's writing?" Obviously, the man was hiding something, certainly from himself. So McCrum, although he writes that his subject's romantic life "was and always will be tantalisingly opaque", is perfectly sure it included a well-appointed "aching void" for a man who was "emotionally backward".

Since Wodehouse writes about romantic love we get some odd innuendo. McCrum imagines (following Christopher Hitchens) that the trials of Wilde taught Wodehouse that "intimacy" could be dangerous; which is true, if you chose to be intimate with rentboys at the Savoy. He wrote the lyrics of a wonderful, rueful love song for Show Boat about loving a man called Bill. Wodehouse's great chum Bill Townend is in the paragraph above and below. Luckily, McCrum fills only a bit of space with these oddly scissored bits of reality.

He decides that mumps in Wodehouse's late teens "possibly explains a diminished sexual appetite", although "this subject remains opaque". This might be biographer's pique that there are no raunchy love notes to report. McCrum is also sure that when Mr and Mrs Wodehouse "established separate bedrooms" it was down to Plum's "asexuality". It could, of course, have been ordinary middle-class convention.

The fact of such a long and happy marriage, in which two people let each other be themselves and loved each other for it - the ebullient and sociable Edith, the enclosed and diligent Plum - doesn't seem to impress McCrum; although he concedes it "survived crises that would have destroyed a less affectionate couple".

Wodehouse, being born under Victoria, raised at a public school and keen on sports, was obviously "repressed". This notion recurs and recurs, but for one brief moment when Wodehouse complains what a bore it is to get "clap". Plum wasn't entirely asexual, then.

Cramming Wodehouse into such stereotypes is like demanding ID from a butterfly; the point of Wodehouse is how gloriously he transcended the obvious. McCrum rightly says the man never wrote a sentimental sentence; maybe that's because he knew something about love, not because he was a cold, immature fish. His constant travelling might be an escape from horrid family, but it was natural for a child of imperial civil servants; and his writing, which sometimes McCrum calls "obsessive", was his real world, wonderfully portable.

His professionalism, too, which McCrum acknowledges, was the habit of a man out to prove he could make money by writing to escape the ramshackle routine of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, where he'd been abandoned when there wasn't the family money to send him to university. Wodehouse was philosophic. Sean O'Casey called him "English literature's performing flea". Wodehouse insisted on taking the phrase as a compliment, using it as the title of a semi-autobiography. "All the performing fleas I have met," he wrote, "have impressed me with their sterling artistry and that indefinable something which makes a good trouper."

The generalisations about Wodehouse are especially grating in a biography that's otherwise graceful, clever and properly, thoughtfully researched. But sometimes it does seem that McCrum may have found the point in the documents and then somehow missed it again.

He's very good at noticing when Wodehouse acknowledges what he owed to musical theatre: when, for instance, he told Bill Townend, how he'd learned that your characters have to have dramatic entrances in Act One and lyrics have to keep the plot moving, and you must never make your hero play second fiddle. He notices how Bertie Wooster grew out of the stock aristo in Edwardian musicals, how sometimes Wodehouse lays out dialogue like a play script.

But the stage-struck Wodehouse took the very nature of his books from theatre, not just their technical tricks. His novels are operetta, a series of musical variations on set themes, with rumblings and arias from an orchestra of words; you can almost hum a Wodehouse joke. People enter stage left, with plenty of stage business. They coincide constantly, according to the rules of farce. The books are set in an idyllic, brilliant world - not Eden, but a stage set for it - where love always triumphs in a proper way. What makes them wonderful is the exact formal machinery and the glorious, ebullient invention it supports, product of Wodehouse's long plotting, brisk writing and constant revision, and his respect for the rules; which McCrum says is like "poetry", still loyal to the literary, when in reality it's the conventions of musical theatre.

Read even a minor Wodehouse and the curtain rises, the lights are bright, the colours dazzling and you've agreed to a time out from the mundane. Nothing trivial can live as long as these books; but music can.

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