Woodehouse: A Life in Letters
By Sophie Ratcliffe (Hutchinson 602pp £30)
Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was not burdened (nor did he burden his characters) with the morbidities of introspection. Delight, not psychological insight, was his stock-in-trade. Yet had he read the letter in which Wodehouse described himself as 'a writing machine', Jeeves might have said, as he once said to Bertie Wooster, rem acu tetigisti - 'You've put your finger on the nub!' The shy, socially awkward Wodehouse burned at a low wattage. The librettist Guy Bolton, recalling an innocent dalliance with a chorus girl, spoke of Wodehouse 'sowing his one wild oat'. Not for him the bonhomie of the Drones Club and the distractions of the bright life, big city. Wodehouse and his wife had separate bedrooms and, when they travelled, they often had hotel rooms on separate floors. Ethel, a former chorus girl herself, may have been, as Malcolm Muggeridge put it, a 'mixture of Mistress Quickly and Florence Nightingale with a touch of Lady Macbeth thrown in', but to Wodehouse she was the perfect mate, 'an angel in human form' who looked after him and didn't make demands.
What Wodehouse craved was quiet and the company of his pipe, his pets and, above all, his typewriter. In 1902, when he was twenty, he published his first book, The Pothunters. On Valentine's Day, 1975, he was discovered next to all the usual accoutrements, along with the manuscript of his half-completed last novel, published as Sunset at Blandings a couple years thence. Like the gnu he wrote about in 'Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court', he'd handed in his dinner pail, victim not of a crack shot but a heart attack.
Between 1902 and 1975, this consummate master of English prose - in 1934 Hilaire Belloc called him 'the best writer of English now alive ... the head of my profession' - published nearly 100 books about Bertie and Jeeves, Psmith, Lord Emsworth and Galahad Threepwood, Monty Bodkin and Ukridge, and Mr Mulliner. Then there are all the pals and gals: Gussie Fink-Nottle; Cyril 'Barmy' Fotheringay-Phipps; G D'Arcy 'Stilton' Cheesewright; Florence Craye; Honoria Glossop; Madeline Bassett ('a droopy, soupy, sentimental exhibit, with melting eyes and a cooing voice'); not to mention Aunt Agatha, 'the nephew crusher', and her brood of sisters. ('If I had my life to live again, Jeeves, I would start it as an orphan without any aunts. Don't they put aunts in Turkey in sacks and drop them in the Bosphorus?' 'Odalisques, sir, I understand. Not aunts.')
The library of novels and stories Wodehouse turned out was not the end of it. There were also his vigorous collaborations on musicals with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton, among others, and his lucrative stint as a rewrite man in Hollywood circa 1930. As Mark Steyn notes in Broadway Babies Say Goodnight, had Wodehouse died in 1918, 'he would have been remembered not as a British novelist but as the first great lyricist of the American musical'. The man really was a writing machine.
When he wasn't writing novels, or stories, or lyrics, or touching up screenplays, he wrote letters, lots of them. In the early 1950s, Bill Townend, a boyhood friend and one of Wodehouse's chief correspondents, published a heavily revised selection of letters Wodehouse had written him called Performing Flea. In 1990 Frances Donaldson, one of Wodehouse's biographers, put together a slender selection of correspondence drawn entirely from the Wodehouse archive. In this new collection of Wodehouse correspondence, Sophie Ratcliffe has rolled up her sleeves and waded into the fray. She has looked far and wide for the postcards, telegrams, and that letterhead bearing 'Yours, Plum' in the valedictory. Ratcliffe aimed, she tells us in her introduction, to produce a volume that would appeal to academics as well as that elusive beast, the General Reader. And she has succeeded marvellously. When it comes to the world of Wodehouse, Ratcliffe knows her stuff. She has embroidered this plump selection of letters with an illuminating but unobtrusive critical apparatus. Each letter has its footnotes, every section its introduction, and there's a key identifying the source of all quotations from his oeuvre. There is also a helpful clutch of biographical sketches of Wodehouse's chief correspondents.
The lion's share of the letters went to three people: Townend, Guy Bolton, and Plum's beloved stepdaughter Leonora ('Snorky'), though plenty of others were the beneficiaries of Plum's epistolary largesse. The writer Denis Mackail, grandson of Edward Burne-Jones, received a century of Wodehouse missives. Other notable correspondents include Ira Gershwin, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Malcolm Muggeridge, and Anthony Powell. Plum personally answered nearly every letter that crossed his desk, not infrequently including a revelatory anecdote or recollection. To one Mr Schreyer in 1964, for example, he recalls the time he met his boyhood hero W S Gilbert: 'A mutual friend took me to lunch at his [Gilbert's] house and I killed one of G's best stories by laughing in the wrong place.' Conspicuous by their absence are any letters to his parents - not so much as a postcard has turned up. Wodehouse's mother died in 1929. The fact is never mentioned in his abundant correspondence. This silence, notes Ratcliffe with typical understatement, 'may indicate something about these particular relationships'.
Wodehouse's progenitors were famously missing-in-action. Born in England, the baby Plum was the third of four boys. He was hauled off to Hong Kong, where his father was a civil servant, for the first two years of his life. There he was placed in the care of a Chinese nanny. He was then shipped back to the home country and, as he himself put it years later, 'was just passed from hand to hand' to a succession of nannies, aunts, and other relatives. The high point of his youth was the 'six years of unbroken bliss' at Dulwich College, where he excelled at games, studied hard, and longed above all to continue the experience at Oxford as his brother Armine had.
It was not to be. Wodehouse's father decided the family exchequer could bear one, but not two, sons at university. Instead, Wodehouse was dispatched to a London branch of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, where he laboured as little as possible until after hours when he devoted himself to writing stories. Within a couple of years he was confident enough to leave the bank and by the 1910s he was a bestselling author, gleefully amassing the doubloons.
Counting those doubloons forms a major leitmotif of the Wodehouse correspondence. Ratcliffe notes that 'the getting, losing, and spending of money dominates his letters as much as it does his plots'. Wodehouse was a genial cove, but you could see that he traced his ancestors back to Agincourt when he discovered an agent trying to skim off a $2,000 commission from a $7,500 payment. 'Nothing doing', he telegraphed in high dudgeon, 'take your 10 per cent and remit the rest'.
Wodehouse lived a nearly spartan life - Ethel oversaw the extravagances - but it irked him deeply to feel the bite hovering in the air. 'Jolly old Armine', he wrote to Leonora in 1921,
writes from India hinting that he is tired of his job before he has started it, and rather thinks of branching out on his own as an advertising specialist - or, presumably, anything else that requires no work. One of the things that buoys me up when I am toiling away on these hot afternoons is the thought that I am putting by money for Armine to touch me for later on. I wonder when he will next have the hateful task of asking me for a thousand quid to buy a collar stud.
Counting in other ways also looms large in these letters. There are sales figures, for one thing: how many copies sold before Christmas, over the summer, last year. And then there is the tally of words written. Wodehouse figured he wrote about 2,500 a day while working on a novel, but reports frequently on alterations to the usual budget: 100,000 over the past two months, he proudly reports. 'I then sat down to finish Leave It to Psmith, for the Saturday Evening Post. I wrote 40,000 words in three weeks.' And so on.
Many of the letters, especially those to other writers, are taken up with writerly concerns, queries, advice, or complaints. In 1930, he wrote to Arnold Bennett to complain about a printer:
In one place I had written 'festive s.', meaning 'festive season', & they printed it 'festives'. So I wrote on the margin of the galley as follows: - 'Not 'festives'. Please print this as two words 'festive s.', -'festive' one word, 's.' another. Bertie occasionally clips his words, so that when he means 'festive season' he says 'festive s.' This is quite clear, isn't it? 'Festive' one word, 's' another?' And so the book has come out with the thing printed as 'festives'. I see now that I didn't make it clear enough.
A mild naughtiness occasionally peeps out from these letters, as when Wodehouse tells Guy Bolton about the advertising firm that was approached to handle a suppository.
They like the prospect of the business, but their policy has always been to have a slogan for everything they handle ... They offer a prize in the office and the office boy wins it with
YOU KNOW WHAT YOU CAN DO WITH IT
The central drama of these letters, as of Wodehouse's life, centres around his internment by the Germans in 1940. He and Ethel had a house in Le Touquet, a resort town in the north of France, far from the interested scrutiny of the tax authorities of Britain and America. They were there in 1939 at the war's outbreak, and were still there the next year when the Germans rolled through and appropriated the villa, confiscated much of their property, and interned Wodehouse.
Wodehouse was kept in a camp (a former insane asylum) in Upper Silesia for about a year until his release, as per German policy, around his sixtieth birthday, when he was allowed to go to Berlin. It was there that he recorded five radio talks to be broadcast to America. The talks themselves were completely innocuous:
Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me 'How can I become an Internee?' Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet on the coast of France and stay there till the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest system. You buy the villa and the Germans do the rest.
But the response back home was not at all amused. It was first suggested that Wodehouse had agreed to do the broadcasts in exchange for his release; this turned out not to be true. It didn't matter. William Connor, writing as 'Cassandra' in the Daily Mirror, excoriated Wodehouse as a quisling. Broadcasting later on the BBC, Connor began: 'I have come to tell you tonight the story of a rich man trying to make his last and greatest sale - that of his own country.' It was hogwash. The Germans certainly tried to score some propaganda points from Wodehouse - they were especially keen to keep America out of the war - but Wodehouse himself was a dupe, not a collaborator. Wodehouse later apologised and repeatedly acknowledged his blunder, but only, I suspect, because officialdom came down on him like a ton of bricks. Deep down, he probably couldn't understand what the fuss was about.
Ratcliffe gins up the commentary for the letters emanating from these years and, like every sane person who has looked into the case, exonerates Wodehouse. This section of the book alone is worth the cover price, distilling as it does the mountain of material that has accreted over the controversy.
Indeed, Ratcliffe, whose expertly deployed biographical titbits enliven this collection, says that the assembled letters 'offer a fascinating and unique insight into a twentieth-century writing life, and the history of his time'. Maybe so. Any fan of Wodehouse will, at any rate, want to trot down to the local book emporium and collar a copy. The book is an essential part of the Wodehouse equipage, and a worthy companion to Robert McCrum's magisterial 2004 biography.
There is, perhaps, just a tiny bit of Florence Craye in Ratcliffe. Florence kept chivvying Bertie Wooster to read books like Types of Ethical Theory, and our esteemed editor wants us to regard Wodehouse as 'a brilliant scholar', who had 'an immense grasp of literature, philosophy and Classics'. In his Hollywood years, she says: 'One can see Wodehouse emerging, in this era of cultural pronouncements, as a cultural critic in the making.' Can one? He did have a classical education at Dulwich, but he himself drew attention to the importance of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 'that indispensable adjunct to literary success'. Wodehouse was not a scholar. Much less was he an intellectual, a class of people that he rather feared and disliked but that he nevertheless managed to entertain mightily.
A consummate stylist and spinner of farcical romance: that was his chosen patch, and he tilled it assiduously. In 1933, Wodehouse wrote to Townend that 'I sometimes feel as if I were a case of infantilism. I haven't developed mentally at all since my last year at school. All my ideas and ideals are the same. I still think the Bedford match the most important thing in the world.' Quite right, and thank goodness. Evelyn Waugh, in a famous BBC broadcast on the occasion of Plum's eightieth birthday in 1961, got to the nub of his achievement when he stressed the 'exquisite felicity of his language' and the incorrigible innocence of his vision. That's why he delights us, and anyone wishing to leaven that delight will want to tuck this volume of letters on the bookshelf next to the chronicles of Jeeves, Wooster, and the rest of the menagerie.
Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!
Roger Kimball is co-editor of The New Criterion.