Writing to his agent in 1935, the comic novelist P G Wodehouse (1881-1975) proposed an essay about literary criticism that he planned to call “Back to Whiskers”. This piece is still worth rooting around to find.
His argument, Wodehouse declared, was that “the soppiness and overenthusiasm of modern literary criticism is due to the fact that critics are now clean shaven instead of wearing full-size whiskers”. He pined for the “brave old days when authors and critics used to come to blows”. Bring back, he cried, “the old foliage and acid reviews”.
Wodehouse was among the best-paid and best-loved writers in the world during the 1930s, a British institution, and he could afford to have a sense of humour about critics. He had found that “jolly old Fame” suited him.
His deliriously funny novels about the foppish and “mentally negligible” aristocrat Bertie Wooster, the imperturbable valet Jeeves and an enormous Berkshire pig named the Empress of Blandings were bestsellers. He’d written Broadway musicals with Jerome Kern. He was fresh from Hollywood, where he’d composed screenplays and palled around with Mary Pickford and Edward G Robinson. Oxford University had awarded him an honorary doctorate.
But things turned for Wodehouse during World War II. Imprisoned by the German Army, he recorded a series of radio broadcasts, intended to be funny and inspiring to those back home, that backfired badly. That his voice was on Nazi radio outraged his countrymen. He later admitted his “ghastly blunder”, but it took years for people to forgive him.
Nearly as bad for Wodehouse, the world had changed. In his excellent biography Wodehouse: A Life (2004) Robert McCrum noted: “As George Orwell pointed out, Wodehouse became associated in the public mind with the wealthy, idle, aristocratic nincompoops he often wrote about, and made an ideal whipping boy for the left.”
This long, slow, painful shift in Wodehouse’s fortunes and reputation provides much of the heft and drama in P G Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, a definitive new collection of his correspondence edited smartly by Sophie Ratcliffe, a young Oxford academic. Wodehouse was an assiduous letter writer, often composing several a day, and there are missives here to everyone from family and friends to people like Ira Gershwin, Evelyn Waugh, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and George Orwell. Wodehouse was not, alas, a very good letter writer. He isn’t reflective. He tends to ramble on numbly about his taxes, or his pets, or his daily schedule, or his fluctuating weight. The effortless humour that buoys his fiction (“Bicky rocked like a jelly in a high wind”) is largely absent here. He’s a bit of a wheeze.
I found myself cursing this book about halfway through its 602 pages; it felt like a concrete block tied to my ankle. My family cursed it too, because reading it I couldn’t help pick up some of the pre-World War I slang that Wodehouse adored and deployed. I found myself calling people “old bean” or “old fright”. Things suddenly seemed “ripping”. I announced my plans to “biff about in old clothes”. Kill me, I said, if I can’t stop.
If you shake P G Wodehouse: A Life in Letters hard enough, however, good things do fall out of it, like subway tokens from the pockets of a fuzzy old overcoat.
Wodehouse – it is pronounced WOOD-house – was a self-made man, and he never took his success for granted. He wrote constantly, often as many as 4,000 words a day. About being a jobbing writer, he learned he had to stick up for himself.
His portraits of the famous are sometimes terrific. H G Wells, at a lunch, “sat looking like a crushed rabbit”. Wodehouse groaned at the enormous fireplace in Wells’ house, with letters carved around it that spelled: “TWO LOVERS BUILT THIS HOUSE.” He later, mockingly, put a similar fireplace in one of his Wooster novels.
He could be very dense about politics. As late as 1939 he suggested that “the world has never been farther away from a war than it is at present”. He did not like change. About Cambridge University he said in 1962: “I think they’re all wrong making the standards so high.” He thought admissions should be based on “charm of manner”.
In the 1950s and ’60s the literary world began to baffle him. After reading Norman Mailer’s novel The Naked and the Dead (1949) he wrote: “Isn’t it incredible that you can print in a book nowadays stuff which when we were young was found only on the walls of public lavatories.” He began to be less sanguine about his own critics. “Now I am like a roaring lion,” he said in 1953. “One yip out of any of the bastards and they get a beautifully phrased page of vitriol which will haunt them for the rest of their lives.”
The world came back around to P G Wodehouse, however. Upon his 80th birthday a notice appeared in The New York Times from writers including John Updike, Lionel Trilling, W H Auden, Nancy Mitford and James Thurber. He was measured for Madame Tussaud’s. He was knighted in 1975, the year he died.
The best place to meet this man is in his novels or in Mr McCrum’s biography, not here. But even in this arid book he seems, to borrow one of his favourite locutions, like an awfully good chap.
©2013 The New York Times News Service
P G WODEHOUSE: A LIFE IN LETTERS
Edited by Sophie Ratcliffe
W W Norton & Company;
602 pages; $35