Patrick Skene-Catling

A serenely contented writer

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P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters

edited by Sophie Ratcliffe

Hutchinson, pp. 602, £

Beaming Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, KBE, D.Litt. (Oxon), Mark Twain medallist and co-founder of the Hollywood Cricket Club (1881-1975), personified a rare oxymoron: he was a serenely contented writer. Shortly before the Queen awarded him a knighthood and the Queen Mother, a devoted fan, wrote a letter congratulating him, Madame Tussaud’s sent an artist from London to the final Wodehouse home, in Remsenburg, Long Island, to measure him for waxwork portrayal, which, up to that time, he said, was ‘the supreme honour’.

He wrote his first short story at the age of five (the first of more than 300) and at 93 took the half-completed manuscript of his 97th book, a Blandings Castle novel, to his hospital deathbed. In between those achievements, as this delightful, massive collection of his annotated letters shows, Wodehouse was the most prolific humorous writer of the 20th century.

Principally a novelist, he was also a playwright (in his heyday, five of his plays were produced on Broadway simultaneously); a musical comedy librettist and lyricist (he collaborated with Guy Bolton, the Gershwins, Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter); a light versifier and a $2,500-a-week screenwriter, all of whose works in all these formats were immensely popular worldwide and held in high esteem by his peers, most notably Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell.

Wodehouse’s apparently casual Edwardian style was in fact carefully contrived and polished. It combined formality and the vernacular, with more or less veiled allusions to the classics, the Bible, Shakespeare and other old reliables, often through the medium of Reginald Jeeves, the apotheosis of a gentleman’s gentleman. Jeeves first entered the oeuvre in a short story, ‘Extricating Young Gussie’, in 1915, and spent the most important years of his career extricating Bertie Wooster from his aunts’ match-making schemes. Wodehouse had a nice touch in the use of hyperbole, understatement, anthropomorphisation and other mimetic devices for bestowing on one shocks of joy and warming the cockles of one’s h. Consider his dissertation on a hangover cure in a letter to Godfrey Smith:

Jeeves’s bracer does not contain dynamite as generally supposed. It consists of lime juice, a lump of sugar and one teaspoonful of Mulliner’s Buck-U-Uppo. This, it will be remembered, is the amount of Buck-U-Uppo given to elephants in India to enable them to face tigers on tiger hunts with the necessary nonchalance.

Wodehouse was well prepared by Dulwich College for all that followed, except that an unexpected family misfortune made it impossible for him to go on to Oxford as he had hoped. Plum, as he always called himself, ever since infancy, when that was how he had pronounced his first name, thoroughly enjoyed school. He played rugger for the first fifteen and cricket for the first eleven and followed their fortunes for the rest of his life.

Many of the letters in the present volume were written to William Townend, with whom he shared a Dulwich study and corresponded from then on. Bill, too, was a writer of novels, but a less successful one. Plum gave him much encouragement, literary advice and generous sums of money, which were kept secret from Ethel, who, for 61 vigilant years, was Mrs Wodehouse.

Barry Phelps, the author of a candidly thorough 1992 biography, mentions that Wodehouse at the age of 20 suffered a severe case of mumps, which probably caused impotence and the remarkable celibacy of his fictional characters. Mumps so badly impaired his eyesight that he could not qualify for military service. He and Ethel, married in 1914, always slept in separate bedrooms. The letters he wrote to her during their many times apart, like his letters to her daughter Leonora, expressed yearning adoration. Ten days after the wedding, however, he wrote to a male correspondent:

I think the main question about marriage is not so much whether you are in love with each other as whether you have the essential points in common which enable you to live with each other without getting on each other’s nerves.

Peter Schwed, Wodehouse’s New York publisher, said Plum was eventually a millionaire many times over. Ethel, as chatelaine of a series of splendid houses in London, Beverly Hills and France and on Long Island, was enthralled by lavish allowances for her Paris wardrobe and international social life. Wodehouse has sometimes been described as a shy recluse, but in his day, shuttling to and fro across the Atlantic until 1939, he was animatedly gregarious and clubbable. Later, he wrote that all one needed were two friends, books and a Peke. He might have added proximity to a golf course, for after giving up playing cricket he said that ‘golf is the greatest game on earth’. He appreciated his professional success above all. When the GPO delivered a letter addressed simply to ‘P.G. Wodehouse, London,’ he wrote to tell his step-daughter, ‘This . . . is jolly old fame.’

Wodehouse said letters make ‘a wonderful oblique form for an autobiography,’ and Sophie Ratcliffe’s expertly edited collection amply proves the point. I felt inclined to skip only some of the letters about his being interned as Prisoner 796 in Tost lunatic asylum in Upper Silesia during the second world war until just before the age of 60, and his frivolous 1941 radio broadcasts from Berlin to America and Britain about the experience. I am prejudiced in his favour; I feel sure he was never disloyal. I don’t care about anyone’s lingering disfavour, which seems likely to be based mostly on ignorance of the transcripts. His escutcheon was deblotted by Malcolm Muggeridge, in his wartime role of Army intelligence officer, and by a couple of Attorneys General, and he was fully exonerated by royalty.

The more enjoyable bulk of the correspondence concerns Wodehouse’s great literary output and great literary income, for which he was an astute bargainer. There is also quite a lot about the Wodehouses’ love of animals.

In 1968, the year I spent in Westhampton, less than ten minutes from their house, they encouraged me to visit them in the evenings at 5.59. Ethel was punctual with Happy Hour martinis, and he invited me to call him Plum. That surely was a supreme honour.