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P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters

Katherine A. Powers tracks the creator of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves through his correspondence.

(Page 3 of 3)

In his correspondence, Wodehouse is free with talk of money and work, as mentioned already, and that includes his stints as a lyricist of musical comedies for the stage and his not especially agreeable employment in Hollywood ("It is only occasionally that one feels as if one were serving a term on Devil's Island"). He fondly relates the exploits of his dogs and the satisfactions of his physical regime: the "Daily Dozen," swimming, walking, and golf. He continues to follow the fortunes on the playing fields of Dulwich College, his old school. He becomes an ardent fan of the soap opera "The Edge of Night" and the novels of Anthony Trollope and Evelyn Waugh. On the other hand, he doesn't like Dickens, finds Henry James's letters those of "a dull, pompous chump," and dismisses John O'Hara's work as quite simply "a wave of filth."

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The Wodehouse revealed in the letters, and in editor Sophie Ratcliffe's substantial and helpful commentary, is a self-protective man who increasingly retired from the public eye, though not from the world of letters: "I find in this evening of my life that my principle pleasure is writing stinkers to people who attack me in the press... One yip out of any of the bastards and they get a beautifully phrased page of vitriol which will haunt them for the rest of their lives."
Some of the most illuminating entries in the book concern the publication of a selection of letters Wodehouse had written to Bill Townend, a project the former agreed to in order to help out his old friend and, also, he hoped, to neutralize the acrimony caused by his actions in Berlin. With this in mind he wrote to Townend (in a passage inexplicably absent from this book, though present in Robert McCrum's superb "Wodehouse: A Life"): "I want the reader to say 'Dear old Wodehouse. What a charming nature he must have!  Here are all these people writing nasty things about him, and he remains urbane and humorous. Bless my soul, what a delightful fellow he must be!'"

This became "Performing Flea: A Self-Portrait in Letters" (the title blithely co-opting the hostile epithet thrown at him by Sean O'Casey). In addition to being an occasional and most genial guide to the practice of writing, the book is a cornucopia of comic embellishment. "The great thing, as I see it," Wodehouse wrote to Townend, "is not to feel ourselves confined to the actual letters. I mean nobody knows what was actually in the letters, so we can fake as much as we like. That is to say, if in a quickly written letter from–- say – Hollywood, I just mention that Winston Churchill was there and I have met him, in the book I can think up some amusing anecdote, describing how his trousers split up the back at the big party or something. See what I'm driving at?" We do indeed, though, in the event, the British Bulldog's overtaxed nether garments did not make it into the book.

In a low moment – occasions of which are far outnumbered by resilient, cheerful ones – Wodehouse wonders where his characters will fit into the postwar world. Writing to Frances Donaldson (later his authorized biographer and editor of an earlier selection of letters) he says, "I can't see what future there is for Blandings Castle, and I doubt if Bertie Wooster will be able to afford a personal attendant with the income tax at ten shillings in the pound. It looks to me as if the only one of my characters who will be able to carry on is Ukridge. His need for making a quick touch will be all the greater in an impoverished world, though I don't see who is going to be in a position to lend him the ten bob he is always wanting." That was 1945, and the future keeps coming, but Blandings lives on as does the rest of Wodehouse's fictional universe. And for that we are, in Wodehousian parlance, dashed grateful.

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