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Duke of Wooster-shire
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Time Europe, 5 September 2004

Duke of Wooster-shire

Donald Morrison

To millions of readers in scores of languages around the world, the name P.G. Wodehouse evokes a mirthful Edwardian realm of hapless dukes, fearsome maiden aunts and one very tolerant, quietly competent valet. Wodehouse, who died in 1975 at the age of 93, remains one of the best-loved English writers. Nearly all of his 100-odd novels and story collections are still in print. Wodehouse magazines and fan clubs dot the globe. Hardly a decade passes without a new movie or play inspired by his creations: the dim but affable Bertie Wooster, his long-suffering gentleman's gentleman Jeeves and their screwball cohorts at Blandings Castle and the Drones Club.


GENIUS IN EXILE Wodehouse, circa 1960, relaxes with friends in his Long Island home

So rich is Wodehouse's legacy that it is difficult to understand why he almost destroyed it. As Robert McCrum recounts in his exhaustive, elegantly written Wodehouse: A Life (Viking; 530 pages), the author was at the peak of his popularity when, in 1941, he made a series of wartime broadcasts for the Nazis while interned in Germany. He was not coerced, but he clearly misjudged the seriousness of his action. In Britain, politicians denounced him in Parliament and columnists in print. Libraries withdrew his books. The British government investigated him for treason, and editors wouldn't touch his writings with a cricket bat. The man whose vision of Britain is now engraved in the popular mind could not go home again. Concludes McCrum, literary editor of Britain's The Observer: "The Second World War finished Wodehouse."

Not quite. He found a new home and, eventually, even greater fame after the war. As McCrum also notes, Wodehouse was every inch the Edwardian: calm in a crisis, aloof but generous (he supported an old school chum for years), quietly productive (he could pound out a novel's first draft in days), and fit as an oak (thanks to daily calisthenics). Many of those qualities can be traced to Wodehouse's Woosterish upbringing. A descendant of Norfolk nobility, including a sister of Henry VIII's ill-fated wife Ann Boleyn, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse rarely saw his parents ║ a colonial administrator and his dour wife. The young "Plum," as Pelham was nicknamed, was raised by nannies and schoolmasters to become an athletic but bookishly solitary child, reading the Iliad at age 6 and penning his first story at 7. When his parents refused to fund him at Oxford, he joined a London bank, writing at night and resigning as soon as he could support himself as a freelancer.

Wodehouse's heart was in musical comedy. He was writing lyrics for London's West End in his 20s, and by 1917, five shows featuring his lyrics were playing simultaneously on Broadway. Commuting to the U.S., Wodehouse collaborated with Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter. "Musical comedy was my dish," Wodehouse wrote of those happy days. "I would rather have written Oklahoma! than Hamlet.'"

But the real money was in Wooster-shire. After a stream of popular stories about well-born wastrels, among them Bertie Wooster, Wodehouse introduced a valet named Jeeves. He paired the two to solve plot problems in The Man With Two Left Feet (1917), and the rest is history. To the many theories about the characters' origins, McCrum insightfully adds: "The cunning servant■foolish master has been a staple of comedy since classical times, and Wodehouse certainly knew his Plautus and his Terence." By the 1920s, magazines like Liberty and The Saturday Evening Post would pay up to $35,000 to serialize a Wodehouse novel. At the dawn of the Depression, he had a Mayfair mansion and a Rolls Royce with his crest on the door.

Money led to his downfall. Tax authorities in the U.S. and Britain began to pursue those royalties, so Wodehouse fled to the northern French resort of Le Touquet. There in May 1940 he was seized by the German army. For 13 months he was held in a succession of camps, where fellow inmates report that he helped keep morale high and shared his worldly goods with them. Shortly before being freed, he agreed to give five radio talks for his fans in the U.S., which had not yet entered the war (an event the Germans hoped his reassuring words could forestall). Not realizing how desperate Britain's plight had become since his capture, he produced a breezy account of camp life. "There is a good deal to be said for internment," he observed in the first broadcast. "It keeps you out of the saloons and gives you time to catch up with your reading."

He spent the rest of his life regretting that lapse. Even before the war ended, British officials dropped plans to prosecute Wodehouse, but the decision was not made public until after his death. He exiled himself to the U.S., where he was viewed with suspicion, and his stories of dukes and butlers were deemed out of touch. "I sometimes wish I wrote that powerful stuff the reviewers like so much, all about incest and homosexualism," he half-joked. Wodehouse lived in near-seclusion in Long Island, New York, with his wife Ethel (their daughter Leonora died in 1944) as he ground out yet more tales of his fantasy world. Increasingly, as modern life coarsened and Cold War anxieties deepened, people decided they liked his world better than theirs.

His countrymen eventually forgave his wartime indiscretions. He was granted a knighthood six weeks before he died. Today the Oxford English Dictionary contains 1,600 Wodehouse citations, and scholars dissect his writings for a depth that isn't really there. What is there, as fans can attest, is a timeless, effervescent cocktail of comic juxtapositions, smoothly musical prose and exuberant generosity. "Behind the Drones and the manor house weekends," writes McCrum, "is a sweet, melancholy nostalgia for an England of innocent laughter and song." An England that Wodehouse, after his thoughtless blunder, never saw again.

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