Posted: April 18, 2008
hat's in a name? For P.G. Wodehouse, it was the making of a career. Christened Pelham Grenville—but better known to his friends as "Plum," "Plummie," or "Podge"—Wodehouse never cared for his first and middle names. "At the font I remember protesting vigorously when the clergyman uttered them, but he stuck to his point," he recalled in his memoir, Over Seventy. Wodehouse's attitude changed, though, when he started out as a freelance writer in America. He might have been a star in the pulps, but he was a nobody to the editors of the "slick-paper magazines" like the Saturday Evening Post. Undaunted, Wodehouse pressed on, submitting piles of his work to top editors and publishers—only to receive piles of rejection letters in return. Then one day he had an epiphany. He noted that on each submission he had written "By P.G. Wodehouse." This, he commented wryly, in an era when a writer who "went about without three names was practically going around naked." So he signed his next round of manuscripts with his full name. It worked: his novel Something Fresh was promptly bought by the Saturday Evening Post. (When the magazine in later years raised his fee to $10,000, he "felt safe in going back to ‘P.G. Wodehouse.'")
Perhaps three was just Wodehouse's lucky number, but the expanded name was also a savvy marketing ploy. "Pelham Grenville" established Wodehouse as the quintessential Englishman—perfect for an American audience hungry for tales of Albion. His surname, too, suggested something about the nature of his stories: derived from an Old English word, "Wodehouse" (pronounced "WOOD-house") means to be "out of one's mind, insane, lunatic." Wodehouse cheerfully owned up to this insinuation. "To be a humorist," he wrote, "one must see the world out of focus. You must, in other words, be slightly cock-eyed."
Readers can enjoy a glimpse of this slightly cock-eyed vision in the new anthology of his works, The Best of Wodehouse.Included are a novel (The Code of the Woosters), a slew of short stories, mostly from the Jeeves and Blandings Castle series, and congenial excerpts from Over Seventy. Much of the fun of making lists is arguing over them, and for devoted fans, The Best of Wodehouse offers a golden opportunity to debate which stories, exactly, deserve that title and to champion their own forgotten favorite. As for those coming late to "The Master," well, as Bertie would say, "better l. than n."
Like his fictional Bertie, Wodehouse had a distinguished family history. He was related to a sister of Anne Boleyn, and Cardinal Newman was a distant uncle on his mother's side. His grandfather had fought at Waterloo. The family's fortunes, though, had taken a bad turn, and his parents now lived in Hong Kong, where his father was a civil magistrate. Shortly after he was born, in 1881, Wodehouse and his two older brothers were sent back to England to be raised by a nanny. Between the ages of 3 and 15, he saw his parents for barely six months. The boys were passed off from relative to relative, including a series of aunts—no doubt the models for Bertie's formidable "gaggle of aunts" in the Jeeves stories. "It is no use telling me that there are bad aunts and good aunts," Bertie says in The Code of the Woosters. "At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof."
He began at Dulwich College in 1894, where he would happily spend "six years of unbroken bliss." He studied classics, and became a voracious reader, devouring everything from Aeschylus and Thucydides ("Thicksides" in the school's slang) to Pope's Iliad and Shakespeare. It was, he would later write, "the best form of education I could have had as a writer." He also excelled in languages and sport. He was an excellent cricketer, a first-rate rugby player, and he could write in Greek and Latin as effortlessly as he could in English. As one of the top boys at the school, he fully expected to follow his older brother Armine to Oxford, but upon graduating was told that the family could not afford to send him to university, scholarship or not. It was the great disappointment of Wodehouse's life.
Instead, in 1900, his father found him a place at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in London. The work did not suit him. He was "a plain dumb brick" of an employee, he explained. "I proved to be the most inefficient clerk whose trouser seat ever polished the surface of a high stool." But unhappy as the experience was, it helped him find his calling. Wodehouse was a born writer—he wrote his first poem at age 5—but he would later say that he would "definitely not" have become a writer had he gone to Oxford, or had he not been so determined to escape banking.
In his spare time, he began working freelance, hoping to write his way to freedom. By 1901, and while still working at the bank, he found a regular gig with the Globe, and began contributing short stories, jokes, and poems to other newspapers and "the baser weeklies." But his career really took off when he ventured to New York in 1904. This first visit would prove so pleasant—and so lucrative—that he would make two more trips early in his career, one in 1909 and the other in 1914. New York, he wrote, was like "being in heaven, without going to all the bother and expense of dying."
He thrived there, creating the legendary cast of characters for which he is primarily remembered today. In 1906, he wrote his first adult novel, Love Among Chickens, featuring Stanley Featherstonehaugh (pronounced "Fanshaw") Ukridge, an irrepressible ne'er-do-well and proto-Bertie. Soon to follow was the monocle-wearing dandy, Rupert Psmith ("the p is silent, as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan"), in the schoolboy novel Mike (1909). Nineteen-fifteen (annus mirabilis!) would mark the first appearances of Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle, missing only his prize pig, the "Empress of Blandings," in Something Fresh, and of Bertie and Jeeves in the short story "Extricating Young Gussie."
Meanwhile, Wodehouse had gotten married to an English widow, Ethel Wayman, and adopted her daughter, Leonora. In 1914 he became the drama critic for Vanity Fair and the next year began working on Broadway. (He would frequently review his own shows.) After the war, he and Ethel moved back to England, though he returned to America for a spell in Hollywood in the 1930s, where he was, to his delight, under-worked and grossly overpaid. "The actual work is negligible," he told a friend. "Add incessant sunshine, and it's really rather jolly."
But the clouds were already gathering for what would be the worst storm of his life: his internment in Nazi prison camps in 1940-41. In 1934, Wodehouse and his wife had moved to France for tax reasons, and not realizing the seriousness of the situation, had stayed on through the beginning of the war. In July 1940 Germans marched into his town. Ethel was left alone, but Wodehouse, now approaching 60, was sent first to a camp in Belgium and then, for ten months between September 1940 and June 1941, to a camp in Greater Germany, now Poland ("If this is Upper Silesia, what must Lower Silesia be like?"). In May the camp commander asked Wodehouse to do a series of broadcasts for his American audience. Wodehouse naïvely saw it as an opportunity to reassure American readers of his well-being—they had been petitioning for his release—and to demonstrate British stoicism in the face of trial. But mostly the humorist simply leapt at the chance to do what he had always done; indeed he had already rehearsed comic accounts of camp life to fellow inmates, to their laughter and applause. But the German offer was in fact a stage-managed manipulation, part of a much larger campaign to ensure U.S. neutrality. He was released from prison and brought to Berlin, where he spent the remainder of the war.
The broadcasts were classic Wodehouse: good-natured, gently satirical, and completely out of keeping with the times. For instance, he explained how one can become an internee:
[T]here 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.
The talks were wholly innocuous, but the British public, still reeling from the Blitz, was not in a forgiving mood. Despite appeals by George Orwell and Malcolm Muggeridge, Wodehouse was publicly denounced, and the BBC declared that it would no longer broadcast his stories and lyrics. Disgraced and fearful of prosecution, Wodehouse fled to America in 1947, settling in Remsenburg, Long Island, where he would spend the rest of his life. Shortly after the war he was exonerated by British governmental inquiries. In 1975, at age 93, he was knighted.
As Robert McCrum puts it in his masterly biography, Wodehouse: A Life (2004), the main storyline of his life was "work, work and more work." Wodehouse modestly called himself "a mere writing machine," and even produced a novel, Full Moon, in the Nazi prison camp. "I used to sit on my typewriter case," he told a friend in a letter, "with the machine balanced on a suitcase and work away with two German soldiers standing behind me with rifles, breathing down the back of my neck. They seemed fascinated by the glimpse into the life literary." By the end of his nearly 75-year career, he had written 96 books, over 300 short stories, countless newspaper articles, and collaborated on 16 plays and 28 musicals. He died peacefully in his sleep, at age 93, ever-present pipe in hand, working to complete, on deadline, a final Blandings Castle novel.
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"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," Samuel Johnson proclaimed. Wodehouse demurred a bit, but he was largely in agreement. "Poets, as a class, are business men," he wrote, "Shakespeare describes the poet's eye as rolling in a fine frenzy from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven, and giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name, but in practice you will find that one corner of that eye is generally glued on the royalty returns." For a man who hated banking, he was certainly shrewd about making money. "Never sell once what you can sell twice" is a time-honored journalistic principle—to which Wodehouse was an enthusiastic adherent. Indeed, he bragged, he could beat that: he once sold a work no less than four times—first, to a British magazine for serialization, then to a British publisher, then to an American magazine, and finally to an American publisher.
In Over Seventy (published in the U.S. under the title America, I Like You), Wodehouse promised "the simple story of my love affair with the United States of America." To him, America was the "land of romance," and it's clear that an important part of that romance was money. He extended his second stay in New York, in 1909, after the sale of two short stories toCollier's and Cosmopolitan for the then hefty sum of $500. When Something Fresh later sold for $3,500, Wodehouse recalled, "I was stunned. I had always known in a vague sort of way that there was money like $3,500 in the world, but I had never expected to touch it." His American connection helped him with English publications, too; he now had a beat. Wodehouse boasted that when an editor wanted some aspect of American life explained, he would say, "Ask Wodehouse. Wodehouse will know." His income "rose like a rocketing pheasant."
It took him a while to realize that he could sell England to America in the same way that he was selling America to England. After his initial success in 1909, Wodehouse found to his dismay that his "output was not everybody's dish." His attempts at writing American stories, he wrote in Over Seventy, threatened to leave him "looking like a famine victim." So he put his faith in another journalistic principle: "Write what you know." As he explained in a letter to a friend: "I started writing about Bertie Wooster and comic earls because I was in America and couldn't write American stories and the only English characters the American public would read about were exaggerated dudes. It's as simple as that."
But Wodehouse's choice of subject was as canny as his decision to spell out his initials. With the Jeeves stories and the Blandings Castle saga, Wodehouse fashioned a literary vision of England that played to old-fashioned American Anglophilia—and also to its other face, what professed Anglophile Ian Buruma calls that "slight resentment one might feel towards a very grand parent." Many of his countrymen picked up on this, and were, to put it in Wodehouse's words, if not actually disgruntled, then very far from being gruntled about it. When Wodehouse was recommended in 1967 for a Companion of Honour, the British ambassador in Washington protested that it "would also give currency to a Bertie Wooster image of the British character which we are doing our best to eradicate."
Wodehouse may have "made fun of the English," but it was a very gentle, good-natured kind of fun. Indeed to a socialist like George Orwell, "Wodehouse's real sin" was "to present the English upper classes as much nicer people than they are." Bertie Wooster and his fellow upper-crusters may be fools, but they are good-hearted fools. "Mentally negligible" though he is, Bertie is also loyal, chivalrous, steadfast, and kind. He lands in most of his scrapes because of his devotion to the "Code of the Woosters": among other virtues, always to lend a hand to a friend in need.
* * *
Money wasn't the only thing that drew Wodehouse to America. On a trip back to London, he wistfully wrote a friend, "All I want to do is get back and hear the American language again." Wodehouse loved American slang, which kept finding its way into his supposedly "quintessentially English" characters' speech. "Rannygazoo," "hornswoggle," "put on the dog," "to give someone the elbow," and "bum's rush" are just a few of Bertie's Americanisms. Wodehouse had fun too with the various dialects and accents of New York's immigrant inhabitants. In the Psmith stories, Wodehouse has his English dandy crossing verbal swords with an assortment of real "Noo Yawkers," including the cat-loving hooligan Bat Jarvis (modeled on real-life gangster Monk Eastman).
Wodehouse's love of the American vernacular made him an outstanding lyricist, and along with Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin (all Wodehouse collaborators), he helped to invent a quintessential American art form, the musical comedy. Mark Steyn makes a convincing case in his musical history, Broadway Babies Say Goodnight (1997), that had Wodehouse died in 1918, he would be remembered not as a novelist, but as "the first great lyricist of the American musical." Wodehouse was a virtuoso at writing songs. Most musical teams (Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gilbert and Sullivan) would write the lyrics first and then fit the music to the words, but Kern, Wodehouse's most frequent collaborator, preferred to write the music first. Always accommodating, Wodehouse happily took up the challenge. "Musical comedy was my dish," he enthused. "I would rather have written Oklahoma! than Hamlet."
Wodehouse credited his forays in the theater with giving him a better grasp of his comic writing. He even called his short stories and novels "a sort of musical comedy without music." Of particular help to him were the insights his theater work gave him about structure. Simple outlines for his novels could run up to 30,000 words or more. It's no wonder, given the fantastical complexity of his plots—those marvelous Rube Goldberg contraptions layering sub-plot upon sub-plot until they collide in a spectacular finish, perfectly predictable and utterly delightful. Yet coexisting with this complexity is the extraordinary economy of Wodehouse's effects. Every plot element that is introduced—be it Gussie Fink-Nottle's weakness for drink or Roderick Spode's black shorts—has a purpose. Perhaps no writer has more scrupulously followed the rule of Chekhov's gun: "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired." The moment a prized silver cow creamer or a policeman's helmet enters the story, no sooner are they likely to be stolen. If an unsuitable young woman turns up, Bertie (to his inexpressible horror) will no doubt find himself affianced in a chapter or two.
No review would be complete without a few examples of Wodehouse's felicitous similes and hyperboles. He could, as Evelyn Waugh put it, "produce on average three uniquely brilliant and original similes to every page." From The Inimitable Jeeves, there's the famous "when Aunt is calling to Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps." Or from "Lord Emsworth and the Girlfriend," on the lord's disquiet at the upcoming bank holiday: "He drank coffee with the air of a man who regretted that it was not hemlock." Or my favorite, from Summer Lightning (1929), on Emsworth's lovelorn niece, Millicent Threepwood: "She looked like something that might have occurred to Ibsen in one of his less frivolous moments." Argue away, Wodehousians!
What can't be argued with is his immense and enduring popularity. Wodehouse is adored the world over. Fans have set up Drones Clubs (named after Bertie's rowdy Mayfair purlieu) in New York and London. Delhi University's Wodehouse Society was once famous for its "Practical Joke Week," until the club went one Bertie-esque prank too far (suspending the women's basketball team's undergarments from a flagpole) and was disbanded. Wodehouse is even making a comeback in Russia, where he was once banned by Stalin, with the local Society now numbering more than 3,000 members. Characters like Bertie, Jeeves, Psmith, and Lord Emsworth have entered the pantheon of literature's immortals. The Oxford English Dictionary, Robert McCrum reports, contains more than 1,600 Wodehouse quotations and coinages (among the latter: "angel-face," "zippiness," and "squiggle-eyed"). By the turn of the millennium Wodehouse had sold some 100 million books in more than 20 languages.
"British Baronets, like British pig men, are resilient. They rise on stepping stones of their dead selves to higher things and are quick to discern the silver lining in the clouds," Wodehouse wrote in Pigs Have Wings. The same might be said of certain British writers, too. Despite his childhood disappointments and the disgrace of his war years, Wodehouse never quit looking for the silver lining in the clouds. "I had better spend my last days strewing sweetness and light whenever possible," he told his publisher. "I don't want St. Peter looking at me sharply as I arrive at the pearly gate."