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Plum pudding

Brian McFarlane reviews a huge collection of the correspondence of the very prolific P.G. Wodehouse

Brian McFarlane 18 January 2012 2369 words

P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters
Edited by Sophie Radcliffe | Hutchinson | $75.95

TALK about parental neglect. I was never led to read P.G. Wodehouse as an adolescent in search of other worlds than those of country Victoria, and I now think of this as a matter of high deprivation. Later, in England in 1971, I read an article about the author on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday, which inspired me to borrow Carry On Jeeves from a local library, but I decided that by then I was too old to appreciate him. Four decades later, in conscientious preparation for this review, I’ve read The Code of the Woosters and decided that I’m finally old enough to relish that world preserved under the glass dome of Wodehouse’s immaculate stylishness, a world unbuffeted by such external trivialities as war and all manner of cultural change.

So, the Letters. Why, I wonder, do we read volumes of letters? Is it in the hope, the expectation, that they will reveal the “real” author/actor/poet/whoever – that they will divulge what public reporting hasn’t told us? We may think we’ve got a good sense of what Dirk Bogarde, say, is like from the sorts of performances he has given in dozens of films, complemented by the kinds of interviews he was always giving in various media and by the personae that emerged in his novels and memoirs. Or that the quirky novels of Penelope Fitzgerald have imprinted on our imaginative faculties a strangely oblique personality, with an idiosyncratic handle on human affairs. But perhaps a volume of their letters, written to a range of confidant(e)s, will reward our quest for a more intimate, maybe more warts-and-all view of these celebrated correspondents. If they’re writing to friends, families, publishers and others close to the minutiae of their lives, mightn’t we get at least some new angles on them, some insights into aspects that weren’t for public display or even relevant to it?

All these issues are raised by the huge volume (600 pages all up) of the hugely prolific P.G. Wodehouse. In fact, he redefined prolificacy, with ninety-odd books to his credit, along with lyrics for film and theatre and, as now becomes apparent, an insatiable appetite for corresponding. He also scrupulously answered all his considerable fan mail. Among well-known English authors, only Anthony Trollope seems likely to rival him for output, with a mere seventy-five or so titles, though admittedly his were longer. It’s good to read in the Letters that P.G. (“Plum” to his intimates) was finally able to write, after a halting start, “I think Trollope is damned good and I mean to read as much of him as I can get hold of.” It takes one to know one. And Trollope wrote with the same disciplined tenacity that Wodehouse brought to his vocation. Authors like these, ineradicably tied to period and place, remind one rather of Hamlet’s salute to the players as “the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time” – more so, perhaps, than the literary heavyweights.

In passing, I keep wondering how the letters have come to be preserved. Did Wodehouse, in those dark pre-computer days, make copies of everything he wrote, with an eye to subsequent publication? Or did he routinely instruct his correspondents to save his every written word with this same goal in mind? Editor Radcliffe lists an imposing number of institutions which have allowed her “access to material in their collections,” and she expresses gratitude “for all [the] help with negotiating the Wodehouse archive and for the copying of many letters.” But this still doesn’t answer conclusively my question about how so vast a collection of letters manages to be kept. Was carbon paper working overtime or did the recipients just hang on to them – more likely, I guess, once Wodehouse became a name.

Who, then, are the recipients of Wodehouse’s correspondence? Family, in the first place, and especially Ethel, his wife of many years, and Leonora (aka “Snorky”), her daughter from a previous relationship, whom Wodehouse adored and formally adopted. Later, Sheran and Edward, the children of Leonora’s marriage to Peter Cazalet, an old Etonian of whom Wodehouse approved (“Peter really is ideal. What a ripper.”) will be added to the inner circle. There is a trickle of letters to Lily Barnett, his housekeeper in his English home, which are touchingly free of snobbery as he asks after her husband Bert. But full of affection as the family letters are – characterised by Wodehouse’s sense of marriage as a matter of warm good-humour rather than passion, and the documenting of a family life with an unending supply of cosseted dogs – these letters are overall less interesting than some of those to professional associates, with their inevitable echoes of a wider world.

Two of the longest-running correspondences are with Wodehouse’s old school chum, William Townend, and Denis Mackail, grandson of artist Edward Burne-Jones and brother of novelist Angela Thirkell. Both men became novelists without ever approaching anything like Wodehouse’s success, and throughout their lives they exchanged views on work in progress. Wodeshouse was particularly encouraging to Townend, offering specific advice like this, in relation to a story Townend was writing called “The Talking Doll”: “I think you have made a mistake in starting interesting stuff and then dropping it. The beachcomber in chapter one is so intriguing and novel that it is a dull shock to find that he only makes that one appearance.”

Such comments are made in the spirit of one author helping another whom he must know to be – relatively – struggling. Though some of these letters are a bit longer than is good for other readers, they do reveal something of Wodehouse’s agreeable concerns for a fellow author, even if there is rather more about “footer” and cricket and “Old Alleynians” (old boys of Dulwich) than I’d have liked ideally. In the letters to Mackail the exchange of anecdotes about their Pekingese dogs may be similarly of limited interest. But even if such preoccupations are riveting only to a minority audience, they are part of the pattern of correspondence and need to be seen in the wider context of two very durable friendships.

If there is somewhat more about dogs and how the old school is doing in various sporting encounters than some of us would welcome, even these jottings help to place Wodehouse as a particular kind of Englishman caught like a fly in amber in the associations of a particular time. As well, though, there is a great deal of fascinating insight into the way he created (and then preserved) himself as a writer. He started writing while still at school, and had a stint as a freelance “agony aunt” for Tit-Bits weekly during which he advised one correspondent to compromise between his favoured red tie and his wife’s wish for him to wear purple: “Would not a tie of alternate purple and red stripes solve the problem?” Besides this being chic, he adds, “anything for a quiet life.” He’s already sounding like the author who would immortally create Bertie Wooster and his discreetly erudite butler Jeeves. He set himself a fierce working pace, telling Townend in June 1922, ‘I am now contracted to finish a novel, twenty-eight short stories, and a musical show by the end of October,” and adding cheerfully, “I have no ideas and don’t expect to get any. All right, what!”

It is probably the information about “ideas” for novels and stories, occasional requests for advice from the addressee, and how he reacted to critical reception of his work that will be most compelling reading for addicts of his literary output. It may look to the uninitiated as if he simply hit on a magic formula (chaps gadding about in country houses, etc) and stuck to it, but the letters make it clear that there was a lot more to it than that. His diction never took account of increasing vulgarities, as he saw them, and he went on writing (in fiction as well as in letters) of “blighters,” of referring to friends as “old bean,” of expostulating “gosh ding it” when pressed for time, or of confidently suggesting the plot of his latest novel is “a corker.” It comes as a shock when he writes (in 1948) a couple of mildly coarse jokes to his friend and collaborator, playwright Guy Bolton.

Bolton’s is just one of the well-known names to whom some of these letters were addressed. They included such fellow authors as Arthur Conan Doyle (also a cricketing chum), George Orwell, Compton Mackenzie, Malcolm Muggeridge, Tom Sharpe and, a persistent champion of the Wodehouse oeuvre, Evelyn Waugh. In letters to such as these, many of Wodehouse’s views on the literary scene emerge – as well as some quite severe prejudices. Perhaps the most severe, however, are those confided to Mackail (regarding “an obviously bloody” author, Christopher Fry) and Townend (“I always knew Hugh Walpole was a bit of a louse,” reading whose letters to Arnold Bennett made Wodehouse “feel as if [he] had been swimming in treacle.”)

There are glimpses of life in 1930s Hollywood, which he described to Mackail as “about the most loathsome place on the map,” arranging to go into the studio (MGM) as little as possible, though he made friends with some of the stellar names of the period (including Maureen O’Sullivan and Douglas Fairbanks). One of the pleasures of his voluminous epistolary output is in the way he is seen adjusting to different locations: country-house England, Long Island, France and, most vividly of all, Germany.

WODEHOUSE’s internment during the second world war was the single most crucial episode of his life. The letters he wrote when he was living in France in 1939 show how wrong he had been about the prospect of war. “Anyway, no war in our lifetime is my feeling,” he tells Townend. “I don’t think wars start with months of preparation in the way of slanging matches.” After a facetious reference to Hitler, he then goes on to chatting about how the dogs “play together all the time.” Having decided to stay firm in Le Touquet, he was arrested and, as a civilian prisoner, managed to get used to camp life. In fact, he “got very religious in camp... There is something about a camp which does something to you in that way.” With what now seems astonishing naivety he wrote “humorous” articles about camp life for American consumption and, a little later, made a series of broadcasts from Berlin that would lead to his being charged with “making German propaganda” by the French authorities in 1944.

This now seems no more than unwise of Wodehouse, but the effect of broadcasting from Germany harmed his popularity in Britain. He and Ethel were both arrested, though she was soon released, and he was removed to a maternity hospital, a situation that might have served as an escapade for Bertie Wooster. This was the time of the judgment and execution of the British traitor William Joyce (“Lord Haw-Haw”), who had regularly broadcast Nazi propaganda to Britain, so that it was a dangerous climate for Wodehouse. As he wrote in February 1946, the “pronouncement of the judge in the Joyce case bars me from coming to England. Right. But for how long? Indefinitely? Forever?”

In the event, it was more or less “forever.” He became an American citizen, settling in Remsenburg, Long Island, but continuing to write as compulsively and prolifically as ever, and never really moving out of the metaphorical Blandings shire that had been the source of his inspiration and his reputation. As he grew old, his prejudices (against the actor Rex Harrison, for example – ‘Whoever started the idea that he had charm?’) surfaced more vehemently, as did his snobberies. An instance of the latter is his dismissal of various new authors such as John Wain, finding no doubt a willing recipient in Evelyn Waugh for remarks such as this one, from 1956: “What a curse this new breed of bright young Manchester Grammar School–scholarship at Oxford lads is.” Or, to Old Alleynian cricketer, Billy Griffith, a few years later: “Bertie Wooster and his pals just walked into their university, presumably purely on charm of manner, and I think that’s how it ought to be. Too much of this business of East Salford Secondary Grammar School these days.”

We wouldn’t want to be too po-faced about such remarks, though. I suspect Wodehouse would have the last laugh, and anyone who has ever had many other laughs in reading him will be grateful for Ratcliffe’s meticulous editing, for the sense of narrative that her interventions create, and for the wisdom of maintaining chronological order. (This isn’t always the case. The editor of Penelope Fitzgerald’s letters bunched them together according to addressees, so that the reader seemed to keep moving toward the novelist’s decline and death over and over again.)

A tiny bit of evidence that Wodehouse’s name still means something is to be found in a recent news item in the Age. The piece, “Exporting butlers to China,” reports that “English butlers, synonymous with Reginald Jeeves in the novels of P.G. Wodehouse” are in growing demand in Russia and China. I think Wodehouse would have seen this as a step in the right direction – “right” in several senses of the word. •

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