A review of P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, edited by Sophie Ratcliffe
Acollection of letters is a fine way to test critical theories about a writer. Christopher Hitchens asserted, for example, that P.G. Wodehouse's entire Bertie and Jeeves corpus was a plagiarism of Oscar Wilde, in particular of the repartee between Algernon Moncrieff and manservant Lane in The Importance of Being Earnest. I would have thought the better comparison was between Bertie and Harry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray. I once tallied the similarities between Wooster and Wotton and noted that both are idle young aristos who live in Mayfair and have luncheons with aunts named Agatha. But the difference is that Bertie is faultlessly humane and uncynical, the key both to the character and to his creator.
Cynical is a word that resists association with Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. "Listen, laddie," he wrote at age 49 to his best friend Bill Townend, "as life goes on, don't you find that all you need is about two real friends, a regular supply of books, and a Peke [meaning, a Pekingese]?" Wodehouse marvels at his good health in letter after letter ("Quite the jolly old sylph these days, and getting sylphier all the time") and only nearing age 80 does he begin to question his personal elasticity: "I note a certain stiffness of the limbs which causes me, when rising from my chair, to remind the beholder, if a man who has travelled in Equatorial Africa, of a hippopotamus heaving itself up from the mud of a riverbank." World events rarely got him down. "Do you know," he told Bill, "a feeling is gradually stealing over me that the world has never been farther from a war than it is at present." The letter was dated April 1939. His prognostication proving open to cavil, Wodehouse, a British national then living in southern France, would spend months in Nazi detention. This included transport in a crowded cattle car amid human excrement, sleeping on straw in bloodstained barracks, and witnessing miserable captives commit suicide—experiences, he confessed, "on the tough side." His life-long tendency to understate, to soften life's gory or complex or unpleasant aspects, is uncanny. In camp the peril of epidemic was a "drawback," and the rations helped him develop an "admiration" for the German potato. Years later, he shrugged off the ailment that eventually took his life, aged 93, as a "bit of heart trouble."
* * *
It was this attitude—some saw nonchalance, others a child-like simplicity—that contributed to Wodehouse's decision in 1941 to broadcast on Berlin radio what he called some "frivolous reminiscences" on captivity. "It seemed to me," he wrote, "that I was doing something mildly courageous and praiseworthy in showing that it was possible, even though in a prison camp, to keep one's end up and not bellyache." Nazi propagandists—in every conceivable respect the furthest possible thing from the Wodehousean mind—made able use of the famous author's voice, and the specter of treason charges would haunt him for decades. Everyone today agrees with the contrite author that it was an immense "blunder," but to me that word implies an erring choice, when in fact Wodehouse was only doing the thing that had made him beloved. Irony, but no blunder.
The 500 or so pages of letters marvelously arranged by Sophie Ratcliffe, an Oxford lecturer who modestly withholds her name from the book's spine, offer no bombshells. As a window onto the man, there is little that, in essence, hasn't appeared in Yours, Plum: The Letters of P.G. Wodehouse (1990), edited by biographer Frances Donaldson, or P.G. Wodehouse: In His Own Words (2001), edited by Barry Day and Tony Ring. But that's like saying that every Blandings Castle farce resembles the other: heaven forbid it be otherwise! Ms. Ratcliffe deserves champagne and peaches for recovering missives from private archives, for the fine introductions that garnish each chronologically arranged section, and for her judicious footnoting.
* * *
The chief exception to Wodehouse's preposterous take on life was his work. Over 70 years his most constant themes are the pace of his writing ("I must have done over 50,000 words in a month"), remuneration for it ("One has to beg for one's money as if it were a loan"), and book sales and theater runs. Only press critics, and only late in life, seemed genuinely able to irritate him. "I sent Nancy Spain of the Daily Express a beauty," he wrote, referring to one of his reciprocations. "No answer, so suppose it killed her." He had told Spain: "I'll give you a tip which will be useful to you. Always read at least some of a book before you review it. It makes a tremendous difference, and you can always find someone to help you with the difficult words."
The second and more interesting theory about Wodehouse that I sought to test in these letters comes from Roger Kimball, who observed that Wodehouse had no "interior life." Digging into the Wodehouse psychology, it has been said, is like "taking a spade to a soufflé." Ratcliffe, by contrast, thinks that "[f]or Wodehouse, as for his favourite hero Lord Emsworth, the deepest feelings remain unspoken," the result of a parentless late-Victorian upbringing and a conviction that an Englishman did not allow the upper lip to unstiffen. But isn't the point about Emsworth that, though he had few detectable emotions, this was only because he got his satisfactions comprehensively from pig-raising and garden-pottering? So, too, with Wodehouse, if you replace pigs with dogs. ("Keep me supplied with news about the pug, in whom I am very interested.")
* * *
This collection, far from suggesting that Wodehouse was a man either of triviality or repression—for he could write with grace and sensitivity when needed, such as in consolatory letters to friends—leads me to conclude that he was just an extravagantly odd bird. There is a revealing 1938 letter to Townend that does not appear in this book; in it Wodehouse confides: "I stay all the time in a sort of artificial world of my own creation." Now, it is true, as Barry Day noted perceptively, that one way we know Wodehouse was an "unworldly literary recluse" is that he "makes sure to constantly tell us so himself." At the same time, there is just so much corroboration of his essential ethereal oddness, and so little evidence of any masks inadvertently slipping, that one is overwhelmed with a sense that author and characters alike really did live in a tiny, sunlit realm of cocktails and camaraderie, where nothing is ever quite serious. Let inferior others explore the gloomy dislocations of modernity. Wodehouse, reflecting on changing theater tastes, observed that instead of chorus girls, the "big moment in one of these musicals is where the heroine—I suppose you would call her—watches her husband die of heart disease." Here was a decent soul who lived with one foot in his own imaginary domain, or modeled that comic otherworld on his actual loopy take on life, or some blend of both.
His day-to-day life might have occurred at fictional Brinkley Court or Bumpleigh Hall. "Great excitement last night," he writes his cherished step-daughter Leonora. "Mummie came into my room at half-past two and woke me out of the dreamless to say that mice had been snootering her." His interest in the existing world, in which he had more experience than most—from struggling Greenwich Village upstart to million-a-year Hollywood swell—was limited by its adaptability to his literature. In 1944 Paris, after gunfire broke out in a spot he had been standing in moments before, he watched a girl's corpse laid beside him. "It was all very exciting," he says, using a strangely unvaried word for a man who contributed hundreds of them to the O.E.D., "but no good to me from a writing point of view." The remark would seem heartless but for that persistent understatement. Dead children have no place in Wodehouse. (I note, however, one departure from his customary apoliticism: a sustained disgust with socialists. "A burglar," we read in Gentleman of Leisure, "is only a practical socialist. People talk a lot about the redistribution of wealth. The burglar goes out and does it." And so far as I know the only time Jeeves is actually perturbed—he reels—occurs when he is thrust unawares into the presence of a bearded Commie poseur.)
* * *
The no-interior-life account has one crucial limit. The two correspondents to whom Wodehouse bared all were his wife, Ethel, and Leonora. "Mummie was saying such sweet things about you in the cab," he wrote Leonora. "We wept in company on each other's shoulders at thoughts that we had to leave you." So devoted was he that when he learned of her death—she hemorrhaged after a routine operation, writes Ratcliffe, but a "bombing raid in the night meant that her call for assistance was not heard, and she was left to die"—Wodehouse was heartbroken. "I really feel that nothing matters much now," he said. That year he sent Ethel a letter from a French hospital where he was being held, but it was lost in transit:
This is such a hurried letter, sweetheart, and I feel I'm leaving out all I really want to say. I think of you all the time and love you more than ever. Every minute! I can't believe that two people who love each other as we do can be separated long.
Decades later the letter was found and mailed to Ethel in Long Island, finally arriving in 1977—two years after the author's death. Wodehouse did have an interior life, it turns out, and it consisted entirely of love.