P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters
Katherine A. Powers tracks the creator of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves through his correspondence.
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That last sentence sets forth the essential Wodehouse, the man whose overriding impulse was to defuse distressing matters with humor, in this case Hitler. Moreover, the passage as a whole displays the insistently irenic, not to say deluded, disposition that led him and his wife to stay on in their house in France even as German troops were crossing the French border. This, in turn, resulted in the fifty-nine-year-old Wodehouse being interned as an enemy civilian, out of which sprang the great misstep of his life: the notorious broadcasts from Berlin in the summer of 1941, aimed at America and disseminated in Britain, and where, once again, he turned to humor for deliverance.Skip to next paragraph
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It is abundantly clear from the letters just how oblivious Wodehouse had been to the implications of broadcasting under the auspices of an enemy power, and to how off-key his insouciance would sound to American listeners whose sympathies lay with England, to say nothing of the impression it would make on the English themselves, reeling from the Blitz. In light of what is to come, it is genuinely painful to read his telegram telling his pal actress Maureen O' Sullivan in America to "LISTEN IN TONIGHT…6.00 PM PACIFIC TIME." Though Wodehouse later admitted widely -- including in a letter to the Home Secretary -- that "it was criminally foolish of me to speak on the German radio," it is clear that he never saw the crime in making light of his captivity, believing that it was a demonstration of English doughtiness in the face of adversity.
Rumblings over the broadcasts went on for years and continue to erupt even in our own time. Wodehouse never returned to England, at first because of the threat of being tried for treason and later, it seems, out of chagrin and a reluctance to have the whole sorry business rehashed yet again. He remained wounded, and his letters begin to show a new tartness, including toward a couple of men who had determinedly stuck in the goad: Winston Churchill ("One of the few really unpleasant personalities I've come across") and A. A. Milne ("A most satisfactory review of A. A. M.'s "Chloe Marr" in the Daily Mail. In case you missed it, it said that is was the silliest book of the year.")
Prominent in the letters is Wodehouse's happy marriage, though, as the alert reader easily gathers, the wife of his bosom -- high-strung, exacting, and extravagant -- would not be every man's ideal. For Wodehouse, mention of personal sexual matters would, of course, be "out of the Q" as Bertie Wooster would put it; still most students of Wodehouse agree that sex seems to have had little place in that union or hardly anywhere else in his life. (In one letter he does mention having had "the clap" in earlier days, but one senses more swagger here than biographical detail.). Ethel's appeal would seem to have lain in her organizational powers, vigilance over his privacy, and companionship. She kept him happy, something we really do believe of this buttoned-up, routine-loving counter of blessings. Furthermore – and, not insignificantly – Ethel also provided Wodehouse with a readymade daughter, Leonora, with whom he formed a strong, loving relationship, as is clear from his many letters to and about her.