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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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02/22/2005 Archived Entry: "Book review: Wodehouse: A Life"

Wodehouse: A Life
by Robert McCrum
Publisher: W. W. Norton and Company

Review by Kathryn Ramage

"...threatened by unbearable thoughts, 'one has deliberately to school oneself to think of something else quick'."

This phrase from P.G. Wodehouse's diary, as quoted by Robert McCrum, seems to me to be the key to his biography of the celebrated author of dozens of light-hearted stories featuring such characters as Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves, Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle, and Psmith -- stories set in an idyllic and innocent Edwardian England that never was. The phrase is used at least twice, as a means of explaining Wodehouse's outlook and some of his more controversial actions.

Although this biography covers the entirety of P.G. Wodehouse's life, the focus is on his actions during World War II. Wodehouse and his wife were living in the French coastal resort of Le Touquet at the beginning of the war, and delayed leaving their home for England until it was too late to flee when the German army invaded; they found themselves trapped. McCrum begins with a foreword describing the day that the Wodehouses encountered the invading forces in occupied France, before recounting the details of Wodehouse's childhood and early success as a writer, then returns to this event at the book's midpoint. Wodehouse was interred as an enemy alien and shifted from one prison camp to another, until the Nazis became aware of the identity of this elderly English prisoner; he was then taken to Berlin for a series of radio broadcasts -- the substance of which were innocuous in themselves, but the fact that Wodehouse agreed to do them left him open to accusations of collaboration and even treason from the British.

McCrum explains this incident in terms of Wodehouse's background, citing his upper-class Victorian childhood away from his parents and his upbringing in the stiff-upper-lip style of behavior, where one learns to command ones feelings, to keep up a calm appearance and light-hearted demeanor in the face of adversity, and "to think of something else quick" rather than dwell on unpleasant situations. It is McCrum's contention that Wodehouse's writing was often an escape from harsher realities (for example, I was astonished to learn that the blithe Jeeves and Wooster comedy, Joy in the Morning, was largely written in the Tost prison camp). He sees his subject as an old-fashioned gentleman who simply could not understand the politics of the modern world, nor the war he had been caught in the middle of:

"Wodehouse is often described as a 'naïve' or 'innocent' in his political under-standing, but neither of these descriptions quite captures the peculiar, even ironic, quality of his detachment. In so far as it is possible seriously to characterize Wodehouse's approach to international relations, it should be understood as essentially Victorian, in which greater power politics were treated as a kind of game." (McCrum, pg. 257)

While McCrum uses this as his focal point -- and these chapters were compelling reading for me, since I hadn't had a clear idea before of exactly what had happened to Wodehouse during those years -- the meticulous research he has put into this biography throughout provides a wealth of detail about his subject. This biography provides a look at some of the other parts of Wodehouse's career that are mostly forgotten today: his work as a musical lyricist with Jerome Kern on a number of hit Broadway shows in the 1910's and '20's (and he was considering revivals and ideas for new shows into the 1960s); his brief stints as a scriptwriter in Hollywood -- although by all accounts, including his own, he wrote very little during that period that ever made it to the screen.

What struck me most while reading was how little of this so-very quintessentially English author's adult life was actually spent in England. I was also impressed by his longevity and amazing productivity. He was almost 60 at the beginning of World War II, and was 65 at its end; for most people, this would be the end of the "story," but Wodehouse's life and career still had nearly 30 years to go. He was cleared of the suspicion of treason by British Intelligence immediately after the war; nevertheless, he never returned to England, but went to live in America, taking a house on Long Island and eventually becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. He did not retreat into quiet retirement to spend those years in obscurity, but continued to work on new projects. As a professional writer, he kept to a strict schedule and wrote nearly every day of his life from his early 20's onward (McCrum provides several variations of this schedule), right up until the very end. He was working on the manuscript of his final Blandings novel on the evening when he died, at the age of 93.

A fascinating look at a remarkable writer's life.

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