Wodehouse: A Life

Wodehouse: A Life

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by Robert McCrum

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"An invaluable portrait, thanks to a broad, incisive and complex understanding of Wodehouse's psyche." —Janet Maslin, New York Times


"An invaluable portrait, thanks to a broad, incisive and complex understanding of Wodehouse's psyche." —Janet Maslin, New York Times

Editorial Reviews

Janet Maslin
… Mr. McCrum, the literary editor of The Observer, faces formidable obstacles here - not least of them the existence of numerous other Wodehouse biographies, including a couple of recent ones. But he surmounts them with an invaluable portrait, thanks to a broad, incisive and complex understanding of Wodehouse's psyche. He also adroitly balances analysis of life and literature, mingling them aptly when necessary.
— The New York Times
Stephen Fry
While not claiming to be a literary biography, McCrum's book allows [the] connections between early life and final artistic flowering to be perfectly made. The rest is supremely well told and, considering its lack of eventfulness... surprisingly riveting.... No lover of Wodehouse will want to be without this masterly appraisal of the good life of a good man. Who happened to be a very, very great writer indeed.
The Observer
Publishers Weekly
In his authoritative biography of P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975), British author McCrum (My Year Off), literary editor of the Observer, rightly identifies the crisis over the great, if na ve, English humorist's 1941 radio broadcasts from Germany (which led to accusations of his being a "Nazi stooge") as "the defining moment of Wodehouse's life." While the broadcasts and their aftermath get the most scrutiny, McCrum ably surveys a 75-year writing career that began in 1900 and ended only with Wodehouse's death at 93. He succinctly covers all the major topics-Wodehouse's creation of the immortal Jeeves and Wooster; his triumphs as a lyricist for the musical theater; his frustrating stints as a scriptwriter in Hollywood; his tax troubles; his love of animals; his post-WWII U.S. exile; his long and successful, if apparently sexless, marriage. McCrum is franker on this latter subject than previous biographers and also dispels a myth or two. While Wodehouse largely left his financial affairs to his wife, Ethel, "in important literary business Wodehouse was always clinically decisive." When his new literary agent, Paul Reynolds Jr., wasn't successful, he fired him. Earlier studies have tended to be partisan or personal and stronger on some aspects of Wodehouse's varied life than others. For balance and readability, this popular biography, like Jeeves, stands alone. 16 pages of illus. not seen by PW. (Nov. 29) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
McCrum, literary editor of the Observer (London), contends that P.G. Wodehouse's contributions to American and English literature have been largely overlooked. While one could challenge his conclusion that Wodehouse can be favorably compared with Jane Austen, McCrum does offer a thorough and readable account of his subject's long life and prolific literary career. McCrum takes the reader from Wodehouse's school days at Dulwich to his successful work as a Broadway lyricist and a master storyteller of Edwardian times who gave us Bertie Wooster and Jeeves to his darkest hour during World War II and final years of semi-exile in America. He offers his most spirited and convincing analysis in countering accusations that Wodehouse knowingly collaborated with the Nazis; his interpretation is entirely consistent with the portrait of "Plummie" as a shy man who dealt with painful realities by avoidance and by devotion to the works of his imagination. Though McCrum comes across as a bit of an apologist for Wodehouse, this work is thoroughly researched and well written; it will please Wodehouse aficionados and general readers alike. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/04.] Anthony J. Pucci, Notre Dame H.S., Elmira, NY Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A graceful biography of the most British of all humorous novelists. Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881-1975) was born at the height of the Victorian era to middle-class colonial administrators who left their children in the care of a nanny in England and barely saw them during their childhood. Wodehouse compensated, McCrum argues convincingly, as a youth by throwing himself cheerfully into the hierarchical world of the English boarding school, as an adult by throwing himself into work. Fortunately for readers around the world, his work turned out to be the creation of a series of brilliant comic archetypes: first, Psmith and Ukbridge, then the immortal manservant Jeeves and his foolish but sweet employer, Bertie Wooster, in a series of novels anchored in the secure Edwardian world of Plum's young manhood. (His lively lyrics for Broadway's pioneering Princess Theatre musicals, and his long-term sojourn in America, are also given their due.) Wodehouse put his foot wrong only once, when as a resident in occupied France he was interned by the Nazis during WWII and foolishly agreed to several radio interviews that forever tarnished his reputation and prompted charges of treason in his besieged homeland. British publisher/author McCrum (My Year Off, 1998, etc.) doesn't gloss over the appalling lack of political sense that embroiled Wodehouse in this public relations disaster, concluding that "the moral test with which Wodehouse was confronted in June 1941 was one that was beyond him"-obsessed as always with the need to work and the desire to please his audience. But he judges his subject gently, backed up by no less an authority than George Orwell, as a duffer rather than a traitor who paid theprice in declining sales and dismissal as the bard of a vanished age after the war. His biographer captures the warmth and charm of a man who wanted only to amuse, who loved his party-girl wife and his Pekinese dogs and his daily exercise. A bit long, but a fitting tribute to one of the great purveyors of light-though not insubstantial-entertainment. Agent: Michael Sissons/PFD
John le Carré
“For as long as P.G. Wodehouse is read, this will be the seminal work of reference, the indispensable vade mecum. In other words—as the Master might say—‘ripping.’”
Frank McCourt - Globe and Mail
“McCrum . . . has written a biography that, if the subject were a general or a politician, would be dubbed ‘magisterial.’ This is a magisterial biography: disinterested, but never detached, and always intriguing. Under the kindly and scholarly tutelage of McCrum, you might want to explore here the Wodehouse genius, the inconsistencies and downright silliness in the man’s life.”
Christopher Buckley - Los Angeles Times Book Review
“[An] absorbing and generous biography, which now takes its rightful place as ‘the life.’”
A. N. Wilson
“This book is a triumph. Not only should all P. G. Wodehouse fans read it, but it is a masterly picture of twentieth-century history.”

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.44(w) x 9.46(h) x 1.62(d)

Read an Excerpt

'You will find Mr Wooster . . . an exceedingly pleasant and amiable young gentleman, but not intelligent. By no means intelligent. Mentally he is negligible -- quite negligible.' (The Inimitable Jeeves)

Ethel had found 16 Walton Street, a pretty neo-Georgian town house near Harrods. This became the Wodehouses' London base for the first year of peace, 1919, the beginning of a decade of non-stop work in which Wodehouse would compose the lyrics for some twelve musicals, write or adapt four plays and publish twenty books in London and New York. He was approaching forty now, had lost most of his hair and was on the brink of international literary fame. Critics, he noted with pride, were beginning to refer to 'the P. G. Wodehouse manner'; and he boasted to Leonora that he was becoming 'rather a blood these days'. This was also the time when, having read about Walter Camp's exercise regime in Collier's, he added a sequence of pre-breakfast stretching and toe-touching, the 'daily dozen', to his routine, never missing a day. Success, marriage and his years in America had left him strikingly unmarked. A contemporary Strand profile described Wodehouse 'watching humanity at work and play, rather like a curious and intelligent boy who has just left school and has not yet had time to lose hope and interest'. This was a characterization with which the subject might have concurred. 'I am much the same,' he insisted to Bill Townend, 'except that the trousers I was wearing [in 1914] have at last given out.' Joking aside, he knew that his wartime absence in America could be misconstrued. He told Townend he hoped that 'I'm not arrested and shoved in chokey for not helping to slug Honble Kaiser'.

There was, of course, no question of prosecution, but Wodehouse returned to a country much changed from his last visit in 1914. The war had blown Edwardian England to pieces. It was a society in shock. The old confidence, certainty and wealth had been replaced by doubt, anxiety and debt. Three-quarters of a million men had been killed. Scarcely a family in Britain had not known that awful moment when the War Office telegram announced the death in battle of a husband or a brother. In literary London, Kipling and Conan Doyle both lost sons. The former would spend the rest of his life in an agonizing, obsessive and ultimately futile search for the truth about his son John's last moments; the latter turned to spiritualism. In this gloomy, neurotic atmosphere, Wodehouse's light-hearted country-house comedies were both a tonic for bereaved and depressed survivors, and a kind of lunatic elegy for a lost world.

Wodehouse was still exploring the characters and setting for which, ultimately, he would be renowned. Two of the books he published in 1919 -- My Man Jeeves, a volume of Jeeves and Reggie Pepper stories, and A Damsel in Distress -- are sketches for greater work to come. A third, The Coming of Bill, was a throwback to the bad old days of writing a Bob Davis Munsey's plot for hire. As well as the books, throughout 1919 Wodehouse maintained his presence on Broadway, while successfully establishing himself in the West End: in January 1919, Oh, Boy! opened at the Kingsway Theatre, renamed Oh, Joy! and starring Tom Powers and a young Beatrice Lillie. Shortly afterwards, in May, The Girl behind the Gun, a Bolton--Wodehouse Broadway collaboration with 'Fabulous Felix', the Belgian composer Ivan Caryll, retitled Kissing Time to catch the mood of the peace, opened at the Winter Garden, starring Leslie Henson and Stanley Holloway, and was a huge hit.

Whenever Wodehouse was over in America, to which he still travelled at least once a year, he was immersed in the ritzy world of post-war American plutocracy. As the year closed, he, Ethel and Guy Bolton took off for a Christmas holiday in Palm Beach, the winter playground for wealthy New Yorkers and, during the European war, a safe place for the very rich to gamble and frolic irresponsibly in the sunshine. Flo Ziegfeld was there and immediately invited them for a cruise on his yacht, The Wench, 'a real dream boat with a cocktail shaker for every port-hole'. The party included a newspaper proprietor, a theatrical manager, various Ziegfeld Follies girls, Walter Chrysler, the automobile tycoon, and a now forgotten American novelist and playwright, Arthur Somers Roche, together with his new wife, Ethel Pettit, a Broadway star. As the cruise ended in the Florida sunset, Pettit stood by the piano and sang 'Bill' so affectingly that Ziegfeld was inspired to start planning a new Bolton--Wodehouse--Kern collaboration, a rags-to-riches show eventually called Sally. Wodehouse thought he knew all about Ziegfeld's enthusiasms, paid no attention, and sailed back to England on the Majestic in the new year of 1920 to continue catching up with his pre-war life.

There, renewing his friendship with Bill Townend after a long absence, he now described his theatre work as the big source of his income. He also mentioned that he had managed to write a number of short stories for the Saturday Evening Post 'about a bloke called Bertie Wooster and his valet'. This sentence is absent from the original letter, and was interpolated by Wodehouse in the published version, with the benefit of hindsight. At the end of this first post-war year, Wodehouse had not yet fully detected the priceless comic potential of Bertie Wooster, and was concentrating on creating another lightweight Englishman, a chump named Archie. This, he decided, was his forte. As he wrote to Leonora, 'without a dude character where am I?'

Archibald Moffam, pronounced Moom ('to rhyme with Bluffinghame', he says), is a well-meaning young Englishman of 'no occupation and no private means'. As the protagonist of a neglected collection of stories, Indiscretions of Archie, Archie demonstrates Wodehouse adjusting to the changed social circumstances by placing another 'English stage dude' in a plausible post-war setting. Archie has just married Lucille, the only daughter of the hotel proprietor Daniel Brewster, head of a long line of intimidating Americans. 'Directly I was demobbed,' Archie tells his father-in-law, 'the family started talking about the Land of Opportunity and shot me on to a liner.' Cigar-chewing Brewster is appalled by his nincompoop son-in-law. Archie's attempts to melt Brewster's heart by finding a job is the joke that animates a series of stories set in New York during the early days of Prohibition. Archie, 'a friendly soul, a mixer', moves in a milieu similar to Jimmy Pitt and Jimmy Crocker, but is a hopeless incompetent whose madcap 'indiscretions' invariably land him in what he calls 'the gumbo'. Like his Edwardian predecessors, Ukridge and Psmith, and like almost all the Drones, Archie is on the look-out for entertainment: 'It seemed to him as though New York had simply been waiting for him to arrive before giving the word to let the revels commence.' If ever a city was equipped for revels, it was jazz age New York in the 1920s.

Archie is, however, 'no poltroon'; he has been away to war. When a highly strung actress, Miss Vera Silverton, points a loaded gun at him, he coolly invites her to go ahead and pull the trigger, observing that 'in the recent unpleasantness in France I had chappies popping off things like that at me all day and every day for close on five years'. Toughened by experience, he also comes from hardy English stock: 'the blood of generations of Moffams, many of whom had swung a wicked axe in . . . the Middle Ages, boiled within him.' This gives him consanguinity with Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, but unlike Bertie he is, in his limited way, in touch with reality. When his wife Lucille asks if he knows 'any really good swear words', Archie's reply places him firmly in post-war civilization:

I did pick up a few tolerably ripe and breezy expressions out in France. All through my military career there was something about me . . . I remember one brass-hat addressing me for quite ten minutes, saying something new all the time. And even then he seemed to think he had only touched the fringe of the subject.

Archie's adventures in New York take in the speakeasy, the stage, rooftop restaurants in Greenwich Village, and the faultless grandeur of the Cosmopolitan Hotel, echoing in fiction many aspects of Wodehouse's own recent American life. But there are some important points of difference. Wodehouse preferred his heroes to be bachelors -- as Bertie is, and remains, despite the designs of some twenty fiancées. But Archie is not only married, he also is a father-to-be. Indeed, Archie Moffam's future as a magazine character is abruptly terminated when, to Mr Brewster's delight, Lucille announces that she is expecting a baby.

Wodehouse would never be a father -- the mumps he suffered in 1901 may have left him sterile -- but once he was re-established in London his paternal relationship with his stepdaughter Leonora, now fifteen, blossomed. His 'queen of all possible Snorkles' became the recipient of Dulwich sporting news ('The Haileybury match was a disaster, darn it') and his 'confidential secretary and adviser' to whom he showed his work-in-progress. Leonora was growing into an exceptional young woman, increasingly at odds with Ethel. Wodehouse found himself having to intercede in the inevitable teenage battles between mother and daughter. 'Oh, by the way,' he wrote in one postscript, 'you must stop borrowing Mummie's clothes. It worries her frightfully, and you know how nervous she is.' Once the family was settled in Walton Street, Leonora was moved from her boarding school in Felixstowe and sent to the Old Palace, a girls' boarding school at Bromley.

This was not just to give Wodehouse time to write. In her own way, Ethel was revelling in the return to England, and was quite in tune with the hysterical, rather desperate, pleasure-seeking spirit of the times. She took up golf, went shopping, to parties and to the races, and eventually bought a horse, a steeplechaser named Front Line. The picture of their marriage that emerges from his correspondence is of Wodehouse working all hours on his own, often staying at his club in Northumberland Avenue, while Ethel dashed about the place, spending his money, now at the Chingford races, now staying overnight in Folkestone, anon visiting friends in the country. Wodehouse liked her independence; it suited him, too. He was just as capable of taking off at a moment's notice to shut himself away in a favourite hotel with his pipe, his Monarch and a stack of foolscap paper. Even when they were under the same roof, they lived parallel lives in which they would be brought together by moments of domestic drama, as Wodehouse described to Leonora: 'Great excitement last night. Mummie came into my room at half-past two and woke me out of the dreamless to say that mice had been snootering her. She said one had run across her bed.' To soothe his excitable wife, Wodehouse added, he went to her room to spend the rest of the night, plainly an exceptional situation. 'We had hardly turned off the light when -- zip! -- one ran right across the pillow!!!' After this, they 'hoofed it' back to his bedroom, but the bed was too small. 'So I gave up my room to Mummie and went back to the mice room. And for some reason or other Mister Mouse made no further demonstration . . . the result is that we are both very sleepy today. I have been trying to work, but can't rouse the old bean.'

As 1920 drew to a close, Wodehouse was busy moulding the Archie stories into a book, Indiscretions of Archie, for publication in the coming spring. He was also starting work on a new Broadway novel, The Adventures of Sally, another Anglo-American love story. His attention was focused on his fiction that year; and the row he had with Kern in November 1920 about the production of the musical Sally illustrates how detached he had become from the day-to-day Broadway business that had so recently been his obsession during the war. After the trip to Palm Beach, and during Wodehouse's absence in London, Ziegfeld had hired first one and then a second new lyricist. Wodehouse, who had already put in a lot of work on the show, in a fit of pique cabled Kern: 'Cancel permission to use lyrics'. Then Kern put his lawyers onto Wodehouse, who told Leonora that 'I don't suppose the action will ever come to anything, but doesn't it show how blighted some blighters can be when they decide to be blighters?' In addition to the stresses of simultaneous work in different genres, there was a new worry, one that would increasingly trouble him throughout these years and ultimately contribute to his downfall: income tax, the complications of which were compounded by his constant movement between Britain and America. As he confided to Townend in February 1921,

I'm off tomorrow to Paris, en route for Biarritz. I find if I stay longer than six months in this country I am liable to pay income tax on everything I make in America as well as England. This is no good to Pelham, so I am skipping . . . I simply must get on with this dam [sic] novel.

He and Ethel had just taken a pretty new house in Launceston Place, Kensington, a short cab ride from Walton Street, but he needed more seclusion. So Wodehouse returned to Emsworth to concentrate in a familiar atmosphere of calm and contentment. He was writing at a furious pace. 'On a novel', he told Townend, 'I generally do eight pages a day, i.e. about 2,500 words. As a rule I like to start work in the mornings, knock off for a breather, and then do a bit more before dinner. I never work after dinner. Yet in the old days that was my best time. Odd.'

Meet the Author

Robert McCrum is the associate editor of The Observer and lives in London with his wife, Sarah Lyall. His books include the bestselling The Story of English, My Year Off, Wodehouse: A Life, and Globish.

Brief Biography

London, England
Date of Birth:
July 7, 1953
Place of Birth:
Cambridge, England
Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, England, 1972-75; University of Pennsylvania, 1975-76

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