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By Jove, Jeeves, they've gone and got married
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The Sunday Times 4 November 2001

By Jove, Jeeves, they've gone and got married

Amanda Craig

Spiffing romance: Murphy and Woodger, UK and US
Wodehouse society chairmen, have got spliced
Photograph: Francesco Guidicini

What-ho! Yoicks! Pigs do have wings, and the sun will never set on Blandings Castle. In news that chuffed PG Wodehouse lovers to the core, the British chairman of the PG Wodehouse Society and the American chairwoman have just fallen in love and got married. Now ensconced in a charming London semi overlooking Muswell Hill golf course, they are locked in an appreciative embrace.

"Never mind, darling, we're fully insured," cries Norman Murphy as he and his bride teeter together on the garden balcony before me. A moment later as Elin Murphy (nee Woodger), crushes his tweedy form to her womanly breast with a rollicking laugh he says, in a muffled voice: "I say, I'm supposed to be the dominant male."

This perfectly spiffing couple is enough to put a spring in the step of the most cynical observer. He is a tall and gentlemanly bean of the kind immortalised by his hero; she is sweet and womanly as befits the nicest New Yorker. Both were practically spoon-fed Wodehouse from the moment they were babies. Elin, who grew up on Long Island 45 minutes from where Wodehouse used to live, tussled with her sisters over which of his books they'd take out of the public library. She remembers "going to bed in a house full of laughter" as the entire family read him.

Far away across the Atlantic, Norman became fixated on Wodehouse for another reason entirely. He worked "far too hard" in the army, writing the Nato Handbook. He says he actually stopped a war while performing his military duties, but won't reveal where. The strain of it all can get to a chap, so he turned to Wodehouse for relief.

"I would sit there thinking that if X happened, then we were up the spout," he says, "so instead I'd go and visit places where I knew Wodehouse had lived. I'd ask some old lady, do you remember a man called Wodehouse? And boom! Of course I do, she'd say. So bang! That was another bit of the puzzle."

Gradually, Lieutenant-Colonel Murphy worked out that all his characters and places were based on real people and places. "It was like building a house out of matchsticks," he says. The idyllic world of drones, eggs and beans that was believed by many, including Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell, to be fictitious, turned out to be real.

The detective work culminated in Norman's magnum opus, In Search of Blandings. Now sadly out of print, it is admired by Wodehouse fans, including Frank Muir and the Queen Mother. "People say they're thrilled to find that Blandings Castle really exists. There are 3,000 castles in England and I've checked every one of them and it's Sudeley, bang!"

"I questioned you on Market Snodsbury grammar school," Elin reminds him. "When we visited it we found that Bertie Wooster couldn't have made his escape from the audience because the stage is too narrow."

Norman brushes this aside. "He could have if he'd gone out sideways," he says, demonstrating a mincing shuffle.

Elin, listening with the soft light of adoring love in her eyes, nods. "I just love his stories," she tells me, when Norman pops out for a calming puff on his pipe. "He's a talker and I'm a listener, but we have such a lot of common interests. I've seen him in action, and he goes up to people and gets them talking. I'd never have had the nerve."

As author of the essay, Lady Constance's Lover: Romance and Sex a la Wodehouse, she knew a romantic when she saw one.

"I told members Elin has made the ultimate sacrifice in this great cause," Norman says, but as Elin makes clear in her essay, the heart of a good egg secretly heaves with passion like a welsh rarebit at the peak of its grilling, and Norman is no exception.

They met on one of Norman's famous Wodehouse Walks round London in 1993. "Our feet were so sore by the end of it, but something else had started," she says. Elin became friends with the whole Murphy family. When Charlotte Murphy died of cancer in 1999 after a long and happy marriage, the correspondence between the American president and the British one became increasingly friendly.

Finally, they realised that in the words of the Master, they "entertained feelings that were deeper and warmer than ordinary friendship". Norman proposed and they were secretly married on October 6. The announcement of their marriage at a Wodehouse convention in Philadelphia a fortnight later was first greeted by a stunned silence. Then 150 members rose to their feet cheering wildly.

"I misquoted Bertie Wooster, as people are wont to do, and told them they weren't so much losing a chairman as gaining a chairman-in-law," says Norman.

He is 68 and Elin 47. The latter admits it "surprised the heck out of me. I thought, I'll be a spinster, that's fine, then fate went and socked me on the side of the head". She thinks of her husband as being "rather like Galahad Threepwood, the Earl of Emsworth's younger brother".

The society, which boasts 700 members in America and 800 in Britain, is burgeoning; there are Belgian, Dutch, Swedish and Indian societies too, and the Germans are just starting one. Wodehouse's reputation, unjustly tarnished after his mildly satirical broadcasts to America on what life was like as a German internee in 1940, is hotly defended.

"He didn't know what was going on," Norman says of his hero. "He didn't know Britain was being bombed, he wrote those pieces to show his American friends he was alive and well. But then, as now, a war raises people's emotions and makes them lose their sense of humour."

In these dark and dismal days, Wodehouse's world remains, as Evelyn Waugh put it, "the original Garden of Eden from which we are all exiled". With the chairmen of the British and American Wodehouse societies standing shoulder to shoulder in matrimony, or rather folded in each other's arms, it's hard not to feel that they have discovered paradise a lot sooner than the rest of us.

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