P.G. WODEHOUSE: A LIFE IN LETTERS
Edited by Sophie Ratcliffe
W.W. Norton, $35, 640 pages, illustrated
Born in 1881, P.G. Wodehouse was not really equipped for the 20th century. By the time it dawned, he was frozen in a time warp as an affable schoolboy. And not just any schoolkid, but what the British call a “public schoolboy,” a product of the elite private boarding establishments that we call prep schools. Perhaps because family finances did not permit him, as his older brother had, to go on to university at Oxford “an unspeakable blow,” according to the perspicacious editor of Wodehouse’s “Life in Letters” his development abruptly arrested.
Sent out by his father to work in a London bank, he did not like the real world he encountered, preferring, shades of his school days, the firm’s rugby and cricket teams. “‘I sometimes feel,’ Wodehouse confided, ‘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.’”
What Wodehouse did with this oddity was to create a fictional world of japes, jokes and pranks, of good chaps and the occasional cad, which managed to resonate far beyond those who had shared his teenage experiences. His novels and stories delighted millions of readers and, televised, in even larger numbers. He had a way with the stage as well: Who can forget the poignant lyrics sung by countless leading ladies in “Show Boat” puzzled by why they loved “Bill”? The more the actual world of the 20th century diverged from Wodehouse’s fairy-tale universe, the greater the need, it seemed, for his ideas and ideals, his escapist vision.
Eventually, that real world came crashing in on Wodehouse’s cocoon. With a breathtaking obliviousness to what was so noisily going on around him, Wodehouse and his wife, living in Le Touquet on the northern coast of France, managed, unlike so many fleeing expatriates in France, to find themselves suddenly in the clutches of the Nazis. Life in an internment camp deep in the Reich “If this is Upper Silesia, what can Lower Silesia be like” must have been the rudest of shocks. But not even this could bring him down to earth or reality.
So with typical cluelessness, he allowed himself to make the greatest mistake of his life blighting him and his reputation, making him a permanent exile from Britain, in danger of hanging as a traitor broadcasting on German radio. There is no evidence that Wodehouse was a Nazi sympathizer, unlike his compatriot Berlin broadcasters, William Joyce and John Amery, who were indeed hanged after the war. There is also no reason to think that he ever took in the true nature of the regime or that its genocidal program ever penetrated the worldview that allowed him to regard Nazis as decent fellows.
To his credit, Wodehouse realized the enormity of his action eventually. Initially, “it never occurred to [me] that there could be anything harmful” about it or accepting payment, and he even cabled his movie star friend Maureen O’Sullivan to make sure that she listened in. Still, he continued even after the war to assert that his treason for this is what it was for Britons on Nazi radio, as Joyce and Amery discovered was merely a technicality. There was little bloodlust to hang him, and he had his defenders, from George Orwell to Evelyn Waugh.
If stupidity and naivete can rise to the level of criminality, surely Wodehouse’s actions in enemy territory are a prime example. Even in the schoolboy world he inhabited, sneaking to those in charge rather than solidarity with one’s fellows was a no-no: That should have transferred easily to life in an internment camp.
That, however, is the unpleasant thing about Wodehouse: He doesn’t even live up to the ethos of his “public school.” After all, their products died in droves in both world wars, their patriotism commemorated in those long rolls of honor on war memorials. While they were doing so in World War I, he was safely building his career in America writing musicals. Even on his own ludicrous terms, Wodehouse falls short, and after encountering this amiable chap in his letters, it is harder to take pleasure in his blithe fictional universe.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.