EVERYMAN CLASSICS P G WODEHOUSE Biography
Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was born in 1881, the son of a good-natured colonial administrator serving as a magistrate in Hong Kong, and a more formidable mother who might have been a model for the strong-minded aunts in so many of his stories. Eleanor Deane, known as ‘Shanghai Lil’, met Ernest Wodehouse when she travelled to the Far East in search of a husband. She was a talented artist and one of a large family with artistic and literary pretensions. Young Pelham, even from his childhood known as ‘Plum’, was sent to Dulwich College, a remarkable institution which also nurtured the talents of Raymond Chandler and C. S. Forester.
Wodehouse married Ethel Wayman in 1914. Born Ethel Newton, she had led an eventful life, having been twice married and widowed. She had a young daughter, Leonora Rowley, by her first husband, a civil engineer with whom she had gone to live in India. Her second marriage was to a Jermyn Street tailor who, after a painful bankruptcy, committed suicide. Ethel then went to New York to pursue a career as an actress, and it was there she met Wodehouse and they fell in love.
Ethel was funny, apparently not beautiful but with an excellent figure, mad about dancing and described by Malcolm Muggeridge as a ‘mixture of Mistress Quickly and Florence Nightingale, with a touch of Lady Macbeth thrown in’. It’s a tribute to their love that the marriage survived the difficulties that afflicted the couple during World War II.
When war broke out the Wodehouses were living in a villa they had bought in Le Touquet. As the German armies swept through France, many British residents fled to the coast and managed to return home. The Wodehouses were amongst those who preferred to wait, but they were taken aback by the speed of the German advance and their belated attempts to flee were unsuccessful. The Germans duly arrived, requisitioning the Wodehouses’ stores, cars and bicycle and even making use of their bathroom. Throughout the early summer of 1940 Wodehouse continued with his writing, walked the dogs, enjoyed crumpets for tea and hoped for the best. He also had to report to the German authorities every day. Then one morning he was escorted home and given a short time to pack up his belongings. He packed his clothes, pens and scribbling pads together with the complete works of Shakespeare and the poems of Tennyson. While Ethel was allowed to remain free in occupied France, he now found himself in a prison in Loos which he described in great detail in his notebook.
Wodehouse was interviewed by an American journalist (before his country had entered the war). His surprisingly contented attitude, and the fact that he refused the privilege of a private room, reinforced the feeling that he didn’t take the war entirely seriously and contributed to his subsequent disgrace. He did, however, accept some privileges. He had the use of a typewriter and was able to make contributions to American magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, and it was in the office of the prison governor that the fatal suggestion was made to him, ‘Why don’t you do some broadcasts . . . for your American readers?’ To which Wodehouse was unwise enough to reply that there was nothing he would like better. It was clear that these broadcasts would deal with his experiences as a prisoner and it should have been obvious to everyone that his approach would be humorous.1
The Gestapo interrupted a game of cricket Wodehouse was playing with fellow inmates and removed him from prison. He was taken to Berlin, where he was confined, under constant supervision, in more luxurious quarters in the Hotel Adlon. There followed the series of broadcasts that had such dire consequences for the author. Their tone was, of course, far from serious. He spoke of his situation as a comic interlude in his busy life. He told his listeners that there was a good deal to be said for internment as it allowed you to get on with your reading; ‘the chief drawback is that it means your being away from home a good deal’. He described the sergeant in charge of the internees in Le Touquet as ‘a genial soul . . . infusing the whole thing [with] a pleasant atmosphere of the school treat’. His general attitude was self-deprecating and he showed his determination to make the best of things. He joked that in prison all he had wanted was for the guards to look the other way ‘and leave the rest to me’, in return for which he offered to hand over ‘India [and] an autographed set of my books’.
England had endured the Blitz and rationing, and faced a long war which had already cost many lives. It was understandable that people should disapprove of Wodehouse’s broadcasts. What was not excusable was that he should be damned as a traitor. The attack was led by a journalist, William Connor, who wrote under the name of ‘Cassandra’ in the Daily Mirror. Connor accused Wodehouse of selling his country to the Nazis for the price of a soft bed in a luxury hotel. He said that Wodehouse was a traitor and compared him, unfavourably, to many anti-Nazis confined in prisons who hadn’t sold their souls for ‘thirty pieces of silver’. Connor continued his attack in the Daily Mirror and by the end of the war Wodehouse’s reputation was at its lowest ebb. Trying, as usual, to take the light-hearted view, he wrote that he had not experienced such unusual displeasure since, as a boy, he broke the curate’s umbrella.2
In 1947 Wodehouse left France and set up home in America. His routine remained the same, he wrote in the mornings and walked the dogs in the afternoons. Times had, however, changed. ‘The world of which I had been writing since I was so high,’ he wrote ‘had gone with the wind and is one with Nineveh and Tyre. Young men no longer lazed in the Drones Club or even had valets.’ But he wrote on, dealing with the change as best he could, ever conscious of the writer’s first duty which is to entertain his audience.
After the war Wodehouse met William Connor, his principal persecutor. They had lunch, ‘Cassandra’ was unable to resist the Wodehouse charm and they became friends. This fact also seems to prove that P. G. Wodehouse was a very nice man indeed.
In time, England forgave his broadcasts. He was made a knight and, to his great amusement, his effigy was exhibited in Madame Tussaud’s. In February 1975 he was taken into hospital for tests. He was found there one evening, dead in his armchair, with a pipe and tobacco on his lap and a piece of manuscript within easy reach. He had never stopped writing.
Taken from John Mortimer's Introduction to the Everyman edition of The Best of Wodehouse.
1. Wodehouse had endured internment for 12 months up to June 1941, during which period he was allowed to receive a mass of American fan mail, but he was not permitted to reply. He took the suggestion of the broadcasts as a heaven-sent opportunity to thank his American fans for their kindness.
2. The Cussen Government Report, received by the government in 1944, exonerated Wodehouse from any culpable conduct, after a full enquiry with particular regard to the broadcasts. Tragically for Wodehouse, this report was not made public until 1980, five years after his death.