Book review: PG Wodehouse, a Life in Letters

WODEHOUSE’S letters reveal an unwitting victim of naivety rather than a wartime traitor, writes Roger Hutchinson

ANYBODY requiring evidence of how much work P G Wodehouse put into his comic prose should read his letters.

In her introduction to this definitive compendium of Wodehouse’s correspondence, Sophie Ratcliffe warns that “[the letters] display only on occasions the extraordinary stylistic elan that one finds in his fiction.”

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Indeed they do, although when the extraordinary elan bubbles briefly to the surface, it is worth waiting for. But Wodehouse was a dedicated craftsman. He wanted his published words to make people laugh, and he devoted hour after hour to making them fit that purpose. One suspects his personal epistles were often a happy relief from that discipline.

The collection is titled A Life in Letters. Its autobiographical qualities are obvious – the first letter in the volume was posted in 1899 when Wodehouse was 18 years old, and the last in 1975, two weeks before his death. Ratcliffe’s chapter prefaces go beyond the call of duty in offering detailed accounts of the author’s life. Her prefaces, removed from this anthology and strung end to end, would make a decent short biography of the man.

But those, as Bertie might have said, are the two veg. The meat is Wodehouse’s confidential account of matters Wodehouse as retailed to close friends. His most regular correspondent, Bill Townend, was an old schoolmate from Dulwich College.

To the end of his life, Wodehouse freely confessed to never having left the dormitories and playing fields of that venerable public school. “How many old colours will Dulwich have at footer this year?” he wrote to Townend in 1947, when Wodehouse was 66, had lived in theUS, France and (unwillingly) Germany for more than half his life, and had recently almost been executed by the French as a Second World War traitor. “I totted it up at 13 survivors of last year’s unbeaten side... we ought to slay the opposition.”

Famously, writers do not always lead lives that are worth writing about. They sit at a desk and write. If it was not for a cataclysmic series of events when he was in his late 50s, Wodehouse would be a perfect example of that ordinary tedium.

P G Wodehouse sat at a desk and wrote more than seems humanly possible. “I have just finished an eight thousand word golf story in two days,” he told Townend in 1920. “I’ve just done 100,000 words of a new novel in exactly two months.” That Stakhanovite output was on top of play and revue scripts, song lyrics and, of course, private correspondence.

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He had his distractions and his hobbies: his adored wife and adopted daughter, his Pekinese dogs, his cigars, his trips to England to watch the Dulwich footer team.

And if it hadn’t been for Adolf Hitler, that might have been that. A long and placidly contented life, a hundred books, a knighthood and an uncomplicated place in English literary history. But Wodehouse’s Austro-German contemporary was reaching his own mid-season form in the 20s and 30s, and not many Europeans escaped the consequences.

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P G and Ethel Wodehouse might have avoided them, if they had not moved from the US in the early 30s to a villa in the north of France, where the Wehrmacht picked them up in 1940. There followed the only involvement of the creator of Jeeves, Wooster and Blandings Castle in world historical events.

If you already know of P G Wodehouse’s calamitous broadcasts to the US from Nazi Berlin in 1941, his letters in the 1930s have a certain narrative tension. You want to shout, “Don’t go there! Look behind you!”

But he did go there, and he could hardly see what was in front of his face. “A feeling is gradually stealing over me,” he wrote (once more to Townend) from Le Touquet in April 1939, “that the world has never been farther from a war than it is at present.”

Five months later, Britain and France were at war with Germany, and 18 months later Wodehouse was interned by the Nazis in a former lunatic asylum in Upper Silesia.

From there he was transported to Berlin, and in Berlin he wrote a handful of funny radio scripts about life in the internment camp. They were broadcast by the Germans to the neutral United States. Goebbels was delighted. Wodehouse’s friends were aghast. British press and politicians were apoplectic. Wodehouse himself was simply baffled.

George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh and a host of other well-wishers swiftly created a post-war consensus that Wodehouse was guilty in Berlin of nothing worse than naivety. Wodehouse’s letters confirm that. He saw his broadcasts as amusing portraits of plucky little Brits making the best of a bad time. The notion never entered his head that the German Propaganda Ministry could exploit his humour to persuade Americans that the Nazis were decent sorts who liked a giggle. When he was apprised of that possibility, Wodehouse was remorseful. He had been, he admitted, “a silly ass”. By the liberation of France in 1944, he was reunited with Ethel in Paris. He was then rounded up and detained by the Allies.

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The author of Leave It To Psmith was unlikely to be given much trouble by a British officer in 1944, and as the officer sent to interrogate him was Malcolm Muggeridge, Wodehouse was quickly absolved.

The Free French were another matter. They actually had collaborated with the Nazis and had a collective bad conscience for which a lot of people paid with their lives. Wodehouse was almost one of them. He was scooped up by Parisian police and held until the new authorities decided whether he was fit for the guillotine, prison or deportation.

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They came down eventually on the latter. The Wodehouses boarded the next ship to the United States and never saw this side of the Atlantic Ocean again.

One thing should be recorded, because it is irrefutable evidence of his – in all senses – perfect innocence. Between 1940 and 1947, while P G Wodehouse was in the custody of two different hostile powers, often living in harsh conditions and always in danger of losing his life, he wrote four novels. They included the Bertie Wooster story ‘Joy In The Morning’ and the brilliant Blandings comedy Full Moon. His mind was elsewhere. Luckily for the rest of us, P G Wodehouse lived in another world.