The New York Times
Wodehouse: A Lifeby Robert McCrum
"P. G. Wodehouse is a comic writer of genius best known for Bertie Wooster and his omniscient manservant Jeeves: the pig-loving peer Lord Emsworth - and a regiment of aunts and butlers. But although Wodehouse and his work have become indissolubly part of the English language and literature, the writer himself is enigmatic. His life, notorious for one historic blunder… See more details below
"P. G. Wodehouse is a comic writer of genius best known for Bertie Wooster and his omniscient manservant Jeeves: the pig-loving peer Lord Emsworth - and a regiment of aunts and butlers. But although Wodehouse and his work have become indissolubly part of the English language and literature, the writer himself is enigmatic. His life, notorious for one historic blunder during the Second World War, remains remarkably unexplored." "Based on research throughout Britain, Europe and the United States, Wodehouse: A Life goes deep beneath the surface of Wodehouse's extraordinary career, and reveals as never before the complexity of a writer who liked to maintain, against all the evidence, that his life was a 'breeze from start to finish'. In a portrait of a quintessential English writer and his times, Robert McCrum describes Wodehouse's beginnings in Edwardian London, his golden years on Broadway in Jazz Age America, and his adventures in thirties Hollywood. Wodehouse: A Life is a journey through some of the twentieth century's most turbulent decades, and it culminates in Wodehouse's controversial wartime experience: his internment in Nazi Germany and the broadcasts from Berlin, a fateful decision that haunted him to his death in 1975, and still affects his reputation." Wodehouse: A Life is the story of an Englishman who served to represent the essence of his age and country, but who, tragically, ended his life at odds with both. This biography brings to life the worlds of Wodehouse's century, while never forgetting for a moment his comic genius.
The New York Times
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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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.
- 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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