Overview

The definitive edition of the letters—many previously unpublished—of England’s greatest comic writer.


P. G. Wodehouse wrote some of the greatest comic masterpieces of all time. So, naturally, we find the same humor and wit in his letters. He offers hilarious accounts of living in England and France, the effects of prohibition, and how to deal with publishers. He even recounts cricket matches played while in a Nazi internment camp (Wodehouse wanted to show the stiff upper lip of...

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P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters

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Overview

The definitive edition of the letters—many previously unpublished—of England’s greatest comic writer.


P. G. Wodehouse wrote some of the greatest comic masterpieces of all time. So, naturally, we find the same humor and wit in his letters. He offers hilarious accounts of living in England and France, the effects of prohibition, and how to deal with publishers. He even recounts cricket matches played while in a Nazi internment camp (Wodehouse wanted to show the stiff upper lip of the British in the toughest situations). Over the years, Wodehouse corresponded with relatives, friends, and some of the greatest figures of the twentieth century: Agatha Christie, Ira Gershwin, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The letters are arranged chronologically with intersecting sections of biography written by Sophie Ratcliffe. This is the only book you will need to understand the man behind the characters.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post - Jonathan Yardley
…Wodehouse, a humble and courteous man, answered all his mail and therefore amassed a huge library of missives, of which this generous selection is more a sample than a definitive edition. But what a delicious sample it is! Ratcliffe…is right to warn us that Wodehouse's letters often are casual…But the man comes shining through in them, revealing everything from his incredibly professional writing habits to his deep love of animals (dogs most particularly) to his opinions about other writers…Wodehouse: A Life in Letters gives us the story in his own words—and far more comprehensively than any previous volume of letters—because Ratcliffe has tracked down many that went unpublished.
Publishers Weekly
This first comprehensive collection of correspondence by the creator of the irrepressible Jeeves and Bertie Wooster reveals Wodehouse (1881–1975) to be an indefatigably cheerful chap whose “voice” might easily be mistaken for that of one of his comic characters. Weaving biographical information around skillfully edited and annotated letters from 1899 to 1975, Ratcliffe creates a portrait of Wodehouse as a tireless worker, devoted family man, and loyal friend. An energetic Wodehouse bounced ideas off fellow writers William Townend and Leslie Havergal Bradshaw, and regaled recipients with anecdotes about his collaborations as a lyricist with Guy Bolton, Jerome Kern, and others. Wodehouse was a footloose transatlantic traveler, often accompanied by his wife, Ethel, and beloved stepdaughter Leonora. Letters from Hollywood and New York, and from rented homes in France and England detail the life of a well-heeled cosmopolite. The upbeat tone of his letters notwithstanding, Wodehouse dealt with considerable drama, including as a prisoner of war accused of collaborating with Nazi propagandists, and in his later years, he bore up against the deaths of friends and family. Ever droll and witty, the letters burst with insights about the craft of writing, appraisals of his surroundings, and negotiating the vicissitudes of life (“One good result of the -raid is that two dinner engagements which we had have been cancelled!”). The book is an excellent introduction to Wodehouse’s life. (Jan.)
Sean Wilsey
“This is the best book I’ve ever read about Italy. Never have I encountered a more insightful and hilarious insider/outsider portrait of the country at the center of Western civilization. Tim Parks should be given a villa in Rome and the title of English ambassador.”
Donna Tartt - New York Times Book Review
“These letters…throw off sparks of [Wodehouse’s] sui generis brilliance at almost every line, while at the same time providing a rare glimpse of the gentle, self-deprecating soul behind the books. One of my favorite letter collections in years.”
Jonathan Yardley - The Washington Post
“[Wodehouse] was a wonderfully amiable correspondent, chatty and gossipy and direct.”
Kirkus Reviews
The life and times of the creator of Bertie and Jeeves, as told to friends and family. Although they don't reveal him at his stylish, polished best, these letters by P.G. Wodehouse (1881–1975) are casual, funny and revealing asides from a prolific and successful career. Although he began his working life in a dull banking firm, it wasn't long before writing would make him rich. By the 1920s, he was getting top dollar. "I have just signed a contract with the Cosmopolitan for eighteen stories at $6500 each (including English rights)," he wrote Ira Gershwin in 1928. "Also a serial for Collier's for $40,000." As one of the most popular writers (and Broadway lyricists) of his day, he kept up an indefatigable pace. (A typical progress report from 1932: "I'm writing like blazes. A novel and eight short stories in seven and a half months.") Wodehouse was constantly on the lookout for stories, and he didn't mind using retreads ("I have only got one plot and produce it once a year with variations"). Evelyn Waugh noted that Wodehouse characters live in a perpetual Eden; their creator was a similar case of arrested development. At the age of 51, he wrote, "I sometimes feel as if I were a case of infantilism." Taken prisoner by the Nazis while living in France, he made broadcasts over German radio in hopes of letting his readers know he was OK; it took years of postwar damage control to convince them he had been a "Silly Ass," not a Nazi stooge. To wife Ethel ("precious angel Bunny") and stepdaughter Leonora ("Snorky"), he was affectionate; to fellow writers and readers--he always answered fan mail--he was instructive, gossipy and supportive, sometimes financially. Editor Ratcliffe's (On Sympathy, 2009) generous annotations and judicious edits give scope to a rich, brilliant, happy, oblivious life.
The Barnes & Noble Review

I was over a hundred pages into P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters before I could square the author of these letters with the person who was England's greatest comic writer, the man with the golden ear and onlie begetter of Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, Psmith, Ukridge, Uncle Fred, Lord Emsworth, the Duchess of Blandings, and a monstrous regiment of aunts. The continuous "feast of reason and flow of the soul" I had expected from the founder of the Drones Club is on show only now and again in this three-quarters-of-a-century epistolary journey. But what is revealingly and disconcertingly present, and what becomes increasingly engrossing, is the down-to-earth, strangely unfrisky human being in which that genius dwelled.

Like most people who earn their bread by the ink of their pens, P. G. Wodehouse took a great interest in money and words produced per day, week, and month, but unlike most scribblers, the figures he ran up in all cases are truly arresting. "Finished yesterday," he writes in 1933 to his friend the novelist Denis Mackail, "making three novels and 10 short stories in 18 months, which as Variety would say, is nice sugar." Elsewhere he reports, variously, an 8,000-word story in two days, 40,000 words in three weeks, 55,000 words in one month, and 100,000 words of a novel in two. The pleasure he takes in these numbers is palpable, as is his pride in reporting his earnings, his most lucrative venue being the Saturday Evening Post. Boasting of a serial he had just finished, he tells his old school chum and confidant, Bill Townend, "The good old Satevpost have done me proud?. I mailed them the last part on a Wednesday and got a cheque for $18,000 (my record) on the following Tuesday!!! That's the way to do business." This is 1922, when $18,000 was the farthest thing from peanuts, as was the next year's $20,000 for another serial—which sums made up only a portion of each year's income.

It is hard to feel happy about one's hero going on in this way—and there is evidence that his friends felt the same. On the other hand, Wodehouse was no "exponent of the one-way pocket," as one of his bespatted young men has put it. His sense of responsibility and generosity is very much evident throughout. Writing to a friend about his marriage to the twice- widowed Ethel, he says that "for the first time in my life I am absolutely happy. It is a curious thing about it that the anxieties seem to add to the happiness. The knowledge that it is up to me to support someone else has a stimulating effect." Beyond that, he sent untold amounts of cash to the struggling Bill Townend—gifts kept secret from Ethel, who had, as she did in all matters, strong views on the subject. These financial infusions were not motivated by charity alone but by the obligation the immensely successful Wodehouse felt for having encouraged this friend of his youth to take up what turned out to be a depressingly uncelebrated and unremunerative career as a writer.

Wodehouse's letters may not be the heady brew that his fiction is, but in them his kindness, modesty (in matters nonmonetary), and overall decency shine through, as does his invincible ignorance of the way of the world, a world he seemed to believe had as much aversion to "unpleasantness" as he did. Here we have him writing to Townend in April 1939 (a little over a month after Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia): "Do you know, a feeling is gradually stealing over me that the world has never been farther from a war than it is at present. It has just dawned on the civilians of all countries that the good old days of seeing the boys off in the troop ship are over and that the elderly statesmen who used to talk about giving sons to the country will now jolly well have to give themselves. I think if Hitler really thought there was any chance of a war, he would have nervous prostration."

That last sentence sets forth the essential Wodehouse, the man whose overriding impulse was to defuse distressing matters with humor, in this case Hitler. Moreover, the passage as a whole displays the insistently irenic, not to say deluded, disposition that led him and his wife to stay on in their house in France even as German troops were crossing the French border. This, in turn, resulted in the fifty-nine-year-old Wodehouse being interned as an enemy civilian, out of which sprang the great misstep of his life: the notorious broadcasts from Berlin in the summer of 1941, aimed at America and disseminated in Britain, and where, once again, he turned to humor for deliverance.

It is abundantly clear from the letters just how oblivious Wodehouse had been to the implications of broadcasting under the auspices of an enemy power, and to how off-key his insouciance would sound to American listeners whose sympathies lay with England, to say nothing of the impression it would make on the English themselves, reeling from the Blitz. In light of what is to come, it is genuinely painful to read his telegram telling his pal actress Maureen O' Sullivan in America to "LISTEN IN TONIGHT?6.00 PM PACIFIC TIME." Though Wodehouse later admitted widely—including in a letter to the Home Secretary—that "it was criminally foolish of me to speak on the German radio," it is clear that he never saw the crime in making light of his captivity, believing that it was a demonstration of English doughtiness in the face of adversity.

Rumblings over the broadcasts went on for years and continue to erupt even in our own time. Wodehouse never returned to England, at first because of the threat of being tried for treason and later, it seems, out of chagrin and a reluctance to have the whole sorry business rehashed yet again. He remained wounded, and his letters begin to show a new tartness, including toward a couple of men who had determinedly stuck in the goad: Winston Churchill ("One of the few really unpleasant personalities I've come across") and A. A. Milne ("A most satisfactory review of A. A. M.'s Chloe Marr in the Daily Mail. In case you missed it, it said that is was the silliest book of the year.")

Prominent in the letters is Wodehouse's happy marriage, though, as the alert reader easily gathers, the wife of his bosom—high-strung, exacting, and extravagant—would not be every man's ideal. For Wodehouse, mention of personal sexual matters would, of course, be "out of the Q" as Bertie Wooster would put it; still most students of Wodehouse agree that sex seems to have had little place in that union or hardly anywhere else in his life. (In one letter he does mention having had "the clap" in earlier days, but one senses more swagger here than biographical detail.). Ethel's appeal would seem to have lain in her organizational powers, vigilance over his privacy, and companionship. She kept him happy, something we really do believe of this buttoned-up, routine-loving counter of blessings. Furthermore—and, not insignificantly—Ethel also provided Wodehouse with a readymade daughter, Leonora, with whom he formed a strong, loving relationship, as is clear from his many letters to and about her.

In his correspondence, Wodehouse is free with talk of money and work, as mentioned already, and that includes his stints as a lyricist of musical comedies for the stage and his not especially agreeable employment in Hollywood ("It is only occasionally that one feels as if one were serving a term on Devil's Island"). He fondly relates the exploits of his dogs and the satisfactions of his physical regime: the "Daily Dozen," swimming, walking, and golf. He continues to follow the fortunes on the playing fields of Dulwich College, his old school. He becomes an ardent fan of the soap opera The Edge of Night and the novels of Anthony Trollope and Evelyn Waugh. On the other hand, he doesn't like Dickens, finds Henry James's letters those of "a dull, pompous chump," and dismisses John O'Hara's work as quite simply "a wave of filth."

The Wodehouse revealed in the letters, and in editor Sophie Ratcliffe's substantial and helpful commentary, is a self-protective man who increasingly retired from the public eye, though not from the world of letters: "I find in this evening of my life that my principle pleasure is writing stinkers to people who attack me in the press?. One yip out of any of the bastards and they get a beautifully phrased page of vitriol which will haunt them for the rest of their lives."

Some of the most illuminating entries in the book concern the publication of a selection of letters Wodehouse had written to Bill Townend, a project the former agreed to in order to help out his old friend and, also, he hoped, to neutralize the acrimony caused by his actions in Berlin. With this in mind he wrote to Townend (in a passage inexplicably absent from this book, though present in Robert McCrum's superb Wodehouse: A Life): "I want the reader to say 'Dear old Wodehouse. What a charming nature he must have! Here are all these people writing nasty things about him, and he remains urbane and humorous. Bless my soul, what a delightful fellow he must be!' "

This became Performing Flea: A Self-Portrait in Letters (the title blithely co-opting the hostile epithet thrown at him by Sean O'Casey). In addition to being an occasional and most genial guide to the practice of writing, the book is a cornucopia of comic embellishment. "The great thing, as I see it," Wodehouse wrote to Townend, "is not to feel ourselves confined to the actual letters. I mean nobody knows what was actually in the letters, so we can fake as much as we like. That is to say, if in a quickly written letter from—say—Hollywood, I just mention that Winston Churchill was there and I have met him, in the book I can think up some amusing anecdote, describing how his trousers split up the back at the big party or something. See what I'm driving at?" We do indeed, though, in the event, the British Bulldog's overtaxed nether garments did not make it into the book.

In a low moment—occasions of which are far outnumbered by resilient, cheerful ones—Wodehouse wonders where his characters will fit into the postwar world. Writing to Frances Donaldson (later his authorized biographer and editor of an earlier selection of letters) he says, "I can't see what future there is for Blandings Castle, and I doubt if Bertie Wooster will be able to afford a personal attendant with the income tax at ten shillings in the pound. It looks to me as if the only one of my characters who will be able to carry on is Ukridge. His need for making a quick touch will be all the greater in an impoverished world, though I don't see who is going to be in a position to lend him the ten bob he is always wanting." That was 1945, and the future keeps coming, but Blandings lives on as does the rest of Wodehouse's fictional universe. And for that we are, in Wodehousian parlance, dashed grateful.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393089875
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/28/2013
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 640
  • Sales rank: 632,344
  • File size: 7 MB

Meet the Author

P. G. Wodehouse was born in England in 1881 and in 1955 became an American citizen. He published more than ninety books and had a successful career writing lyrics and musicals in collaboration with Jerome Kern, Guy Bolton, and Cole Porter, among others.

Sophie Ratcliffe is a tutor in English at Christ Church, Oxford. She lives in England.

Biography

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was born in 1881 in Guildford, the son of a civil servant, and educated at Dulwich College. He spent a brief period working for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank before abandoning finance for writing, earning a living by journalism and selling stories to magazines.

An enormously popular and prolific writer, he produced about 100 books. In Jeeves, the ever resourceful "gentleman's personal gentleman", and the good-hearted young blunderer Bertie Wooster, he created two of the best known and best loved characters in twentieth century literature. Their exploits, first collected in Carry On, Jeeves, were chronicled in fourteen books, and have been repeatedly adapted for television, radio and the stage. Wodehouse also created many other comic figures, notably Lord Emsworth, the Hon. Galahad Threepwood, Psmith and the numerous members of the Drones Club. He was part-author and writer of fifteen straight plays and 250 lyrics for some 30 musical comedies. The Times hailed him as a "comic genius recognized in his lifetime as a classic and an old master of farce."

P. G. Wodehouse said, "I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn ...."

Wodehouse married in 1914 and took American citizenship in 1955. He was created a Knight of the British Empire in the 1975 New Year's Honours List. In a BBC interview he said that he had no ambitions left now that he had been knighted and there was a waxwork of him in Madame Tussaud's. He died on St. Valentine's Day, 1975, at the age of ninety-three.

Author biography courtesy of Penguin Books LTD.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (full name); P. Brooke-Haven, Pelham Grenville, J. Plum, C. P. West, J. Walker Williams, and Basil Windham
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 15, 1881
    2. Place of Birth:
      Guildford, Surrey, England
    1. Date of Death:
      February 14, 1975
    2. Place of Death:
      Southampton, New York

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