P.G. Wodehouse: A Biography by Frances Donaldson (Trafalgar Square, 2001)
Observers of the affaire Peter Arnett (who lost his job after a sympathetic interview on Iraqi television) may not be aware that the man whom Belloc called “the greatest writer of his time” was nearly charged with treason for a similar offence. In 1940, P.G. Wodehouse was trapped in France when the Germans advanced. After a spell of imprisonment, shortly before his sixtieth birthday (when he would automatically have been released), he agreed to a series of radio talks on prison camp life, broadcast to an audience in the United States. When Goebbels decided to use them for propaganda purposes by targeting England, a public campaign encouraged by the U.K. government vilified Wodehouse. He never returned to England, although he was given a compensatory knighthood shortly before he died.
For her biography of “Plum”, Frances Donaldson (who was a friend of Wodehouse) had full access to the author’s private papers, and includes the text of the talks themselves, as well a good chunk – a surfeit, even – of the author’s diaries during internment. Her main concern is to settle the truth of the sad affair of the broadcasts. And her affectionate and fair portrait comes to what is almost universally regarded as the correct assessment of Wodehouse’s action – that it was innocently intended as anti-German propaganda, sprung from an innate need to amuse. The man, so ingenious in his creation of intrigue in his novels, was so incapable of artifice in real life that he could not imagine that one thoughtless decision would be exploited by the mean and the jealous among his countrymen.
Otherwise, Donaldson sheds little fresh light on Wodehouse the man: in truth, he was an uncontroversial, reclusive gentleman, happily married to a socializing widow who sheltered him from messy everyday issues. (In fact, nowhere does Plum himself come more alive than in the profile by his beloved step-daughter, Leonora, reprinted here as an Interlude.) Despite his connections with Tinseltown, even today’s tabloids would struggle to find circulation-raising stories of inappropriate goings-on. In only one place did I find her analysis unfinished: when Wodehouse claimed that he had never gotten round to becoming a U.S. citizen earlier (i.e. before the wartime embarrassment), could it have had something to do with his ongoing dispute with the Internal Revenue Service?
Donaldson is less convincing in her coverage of Wodehouse’s literary stature – which she disposes of in a somewhat rambling Introduction. She selects some unusual passages as examples of his humor, and makes the dubious argument that, “since women prefer wit to farce”, Wodehouse’s writing “puts him out of reach of the female sex”. More research needed, no doubt. But who would accuse Wodehouse of lack of wit?
I offer you my experience. When I was about nine years old, I discovered lying about the house a dull gray paperback bearing the forbidding title of Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit. “Jeeves” sounded a very medieval name (echoing “reeves” and “Greensleeves”), and, while I had heard of the Feudal Ages, I wasn’t sure exactly what “feudal” meant. It accompanied other murkily understood terms such as “knights errant”, and “droit du seigneur”. And even though I was not then as intimately familiar with Paradise Lost as I am now, I suspected the Spirit might represent some moralistic, Miltonic figure who should be quickly passed by. Fortunately, I opened the book on a whim, and thus began a lifetime’s delight with the sparkling absurdities of the worlds of Wodehouse, which can still provoke tears of mirth. In these troubled days, a retreat to one’s nook with Gussie Fink-Nottle or Lord Emsworth can act as a real tonic – a Buck-u-uppo, you might say. Indeed, if you are feeling low, why not ask your doctor if Wodehouse is right for you?