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||Sir P(elham) G(renville) Wodehouse (1881-1975)|
Prolific English comic novelist, short story writer, lyricist and playwright, best known as the creator of Jeeves, the perfect "gentleman's gentleman," Bertie Wooster of the Drones Club, a young bachelor aristocrat, and the absentminded Lord Emsworth of the Blandings Castle. Most of Wodehouse's works gently parodied the British aristocracy of the 1920s and 1930s. After World War II Wodehouse lived in the United States. During the decades, Wodehouse's picture of Edwardian England gradually disengaged from reality, and became an imaginary land which was untouched by time. As a prose stylist Wodehouse praised by such writers as Hilaire Bellock and Evelyn Waugh.
"One great advantage in being a historian to a man like Jeeves is that his mere personality prevents one selling one's artistic soul for gold. In recent years I have had lucrative offers for his services from theatrical managers, motion-picture magnates, the proprietors of one or two widely advertised commodities, and even the editor of the comic supplement of an American newspaper, who wanted him for a "comic strip". But, tempting though the terms were, it only needed Jeeves deprecating cough and his murmured "I would scarcely advocate it, sir," to put the jack under my better nature. Jeeves knows his place, and it is between the covers of a book." (from Wodehouse's introduction to The World of Jeeves, 1967)
Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was born in Guildford, Surrey, the third son of Henry Ernest Wodehouse, a British judge in Hong Kong, and Eleanor (Deane) Wodehouse. Within the family, Wodehouse's first name was abbreviated to "Plum" and later also his wife and friends used this name. Until the age of four, Wodehouse lived in Hong Kong with his parents. Returning to England, he spent much of his childhood in the care of various aunts, seeing rarely his parents. Wodehouse attended boarding schools and received his secondary education at Dulwich College, London, which he always remembered with affection. "To me, the years between 1894 and 1900 were like heaven," he once said.
His first story Wodehouse wrote at the age of seven. His first article for which he was paid was 'Some Aspects of Game Captaincy." Wodehouse wrote it for a competition sponsored by The Public School Magazine. However, Wodehouse's father did not approve of his son's writing, and after graduating in 1900 Wodehouse worked two years at the London branch of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank.
Wodehouse entered the literary world first as a free-lance writer, contributing humorous stories to Punch and the London Globe, where he had a column called 'By the Way'. Most of his stories appeared first serialized at the Saturday Evening Post. After 1909 he lived and worked long periods in the United States and in France. In 1914 he married Ethel Newton, a widow; they had met in New York eight weeks earlier. She had a daughter, Leonora, whom Wodehouse adopted legally. In 1926 he dedicated The Heart of a Goof to his daughter "without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half time." Leonora died in 1943.
Wodehouse wrote for musical comedy in New York and for Hollywood, but viewed the film industry ironically. "In every studio in Hollywood there are rows and rows of hutches, each containing an author on a long contract at a weekly salary. You see their anxious little faces peering out through the bars. You hear them whining piteously to be taken for a walk. And does the heart bleed? You bet it bleeds. A visitor has to be very callous not to be touched by such a spectacle as this." (Wodehouse in Saturday Evening Post, Dec. 1929) Once he spent a week at William Randolph Hearst's estate and wrote: "I sat on [Hearst's mistress Marion Davies's] right the first night, the found myself being edged further and further away till I got to the extreme end . . . Another day, and I should have been feeding on the floor."
Wodehouse's early stories were mainly for schoolboys centering on a character known as Ronald (or sometimes Rupert) Eustace Psmith, a "very tall, very thin, very solemn young man." Following the World War I Wodehouse gained fame with the novel Piccadilly Jim (1918). At the time he married Ethel, he had only $100 in bank, but by the 1920s he was earning $100,000 in a year. His major breakthrough Wodehause made with The Inimitable Jeeves (1924). He had introduced Bertie Woorster and a valet named Jeeves in the short story 'The Man with Two Left Feet' (1917). Thank You, Jeeves (1934), his novel centering on these characters, was immediately greeted as one of his very best. Although the juxtaposition of a clever servant and foolish master had been known since classical times and was famously used by Cervantes in the Don Quixote-Sancho Panza pair, Wodehouse managed to refresh the old idea and add to it a peculiar British twist.
Usually Jeeves saved Bertie from many disasters. Of his relatives the most formidable was Aunt Agatha. C. Northcote Parkinson wrote in his Jeeves, A Gentleman's Personal Gentleman (1979): "Bertie was under the impression that he had chosen Jeeves, approving the man who had been sent by an agency. But that is not what happened. Proust once remarked that, 'It is a mistake to speak of a bad choice in love, since, as soon as a choice exists, it can only be bad.'" In addition to his humorous novels and stories, Wodehouse collaborated with Guy Bolton in writing several popular Broadway musicals, notably Sally (1920), Sitting Pretty (1924), Anything Goes (1934), and Bring on the Girls (1954). Wodehouse's greatest lyrics include 'Bill,' a hit in the musical Show Boat. "Musical comedy was my dish," he once said. He collaborated among others with Jerome Kern (Oh, Boy!, 1917; Leave it to Jane, 1917), George Gershwin (Oh, Kay!, 1926), and Cole Porter, who wrote lyrics and music for Anything Goes.
"So always look for the silver lining
Wodehouse spent the remainder of his life in several homes in the
U.S. and Europe. In Hollywood he helped found the Hollywood Cricket
Club; its members included Boris Karloff, Errol Flynn, and David Niven.
Later, while living in Long Island, he helped set up "Bide-A-Wee" home for stray and abandoned pets.
During World War II Wodehouse was captured by the Germans at Le Touquet, France, where he used to stay when not living in England-partly because tax authorities. At that time the U.S. had not entered the war. After spending about a year in various German camps, he was interned in Berlin. For a period, he stayed at the Adlon hotel, and then spent the summer with friends in the country. Eventually the Wodehouses were dispatched to Paris. The New York Times wrote in September 1942, that Wodehouse had "accepted German hospitality on a luxurious scale."
Wodehouse, who was not a Nazi sympathizer, naïvely recorded five
interviews, depicting humorously his experiences as an internee. These
interviews were broadcast by German radio to America and England, but
his made Wodehouse liable to charges of treason. On his first chat he
said: "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."
Wodehouse was labelled as a quisling in the Daily Mirror and libraries withdrew his books-the Battle of Britain was no laughing matter. After the liberation of Paris, Wodehouse was arrested by the French, and released in 1945 through the intervention of British officials. For fear of prosecution, which the British officials had actually dropped, he was not able to return to his home country. Accusations against him were never proven correct, but he was never totally cleared. George Orwell defended Wodehouse but A.A. Milne broke his friendship with him.
The first Wodehouse work to be published in Britain after the war was Money in the Bank, which came out in 1946 and sold 26,000 copies. When the play Don't Listen, Ladies, written in collaboration with Guy Bolton, was produced in London, the playwrights were billed as Guy Bolton and Stephen Powys.
Wodehouse settled in the United States, living in his new home country in near-seclusion. He bought a ten-acre estate on Long Island in 1952. An American citizen he became three years later. By this time his political mistakes were forgotten, and Wodehouse was subsequently awarded a D.Litt. from Oxford University. Malcolm Muggeridge, who had investigated the author as a member of military intelligence during the war, asked him in 1953 to write a regular column for Punch magazine. Though Wodehouse eventually lived in America longer than in Britain, he retained his English accent. He died in Remsenburg, Long Island, on February 14, 1975. A few weeks before he died, Wodehouse had received a knighthood.
Wodehouse wrote nearly 100 novels, about 30 plays and 20 screenplays. His first book, The Pothunters, a short story collection, was published 1902. The last, Aunt's Aren't Gentlemen, appeared 1974. Wodehouse also wrote his memoirs, Performing Flea (1951) and Over Seventy (1957). In the 1960s Wodehouse's stories inspired the television series The World of Wooster and Blandings Castle. Wodehouse Playhouse started in 1975 and in the 1990s Hugh Laurie as Bertie and Stephen Fry as Jeeves appeared in new television series. Piccadilly Jim was made into a film by Robert Z. Leonard in 1936, starring Robert Montgomery, Madge Evans, and Frank Morgan.
For further reading: Bibliography and Reader's Guide to the First Editions of P.G. Wodehouse by David Jansen (1971); The World of P.G. Wodehouse by H.W. Wind (1972); P.G. Wodehouse at Work to the End by Richard Usborne (1976) P.G. Wodehouse by Owen Dudley Owens (1977); Jeeves: A Gentleman's personal Gentleman by C. Northcote Parkinson (1979); P.G. Wodehouse. A Literary Biography by Benny Green (1981); P.G. Wodehouse by Frances Donaldson (1982); Wodehouse: The Fictionist by M.N. Shama (1982); Who's Who in Wodehouse by Daniel H. Garrison (1990); P. G. Wodehouse: Man and Myth by Barry Phelps (1992); Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum (2004); The Novel Life of P.G. Wodehouse by Roderick Easdale (2004)