PLUM, a whopper to write and entertain.
Pelham Grenville Wodehouse
Born October 15, 1881, in Guildford, Surrey, the third son of Ernest and Eleanor Wodehouse, during her ‘birth visit’’ in England. The father was employed in the civil administration of the Crown Colony Hong Kong.
‘Plum’ as P.G. Wodehouse soon came to be known, died February 14, 1975, in Southampton, Long Island, N.Y. – with an unfinished novel, Sunset at Blandings, in the typewriter.
From his debut at the turn of the century until the day of his death, he had published over 100 books, written or participated in the production of sixteen plays, about 300 operetta and musical songs (28 musicals) and other verses, and co-wrote six films during the Hollywood era. In total, he wrote over 300 short stories, many of which were published in book form. In addition, there are a number of articles and stories, including a Saturday Evening Post and Punch. An impressive, practically uninterrupted production of works, which amused and still amuse large crowds of readers.
A life's work that led his contemporary, Hilaire Belloc, to call him 'the best writer of our time' in 1938… the best living author in English … first among equals'.
The school year
With the parents in Hong Kong, it became a matter of relatives to take care of the boys' Wodehouse education. So it was with all the families of civil servants in the British Empire. From the most remote outposts the children were sent home; often years could pass between the meetings with the parents. All indications are that Plum and his brothers, despite the absence of their parents, had a good childhood, in a loving family and relatives.
Plum went to good schools, but the family's finances were not as expensive as Eton's. He accompanied his brother Armine to Dulwich College (near Greenwich), where, in addition to studying classical classics and his pastimes, boxing, cricket and rugby, he began writing. ‘A schooling of six years of unbroken joy’, became his summary of college time.
In the early 1900s, he published his first article in a small but popular publication. Public School Magazine. A modest start, but with a very conscious ambition to become a writer. And soon came schoolboy stories, as in The Captain.
The banking year
Wodehouse hardly wanted to realize then that a career as a writer was certainly an unwise adventure, but when he was offered an internship at a bank, The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in London, after college he took it, seemingly loyal to his adviser, his father.
His future now seemed marked; The bank job was intended to give him experience from all of a bank's areas and departments, from the management of the Stamp Office to more sophisticated tasks, such as Import Bonds. The goal was to travel to Asia after training to park in a bank for the rest of my life. Wodehouse held out in the banking world for barely two years; the treasure, however, became a number of amusing experiences, which recurred in his early production.
After more than a decade of ‘public-school stories’’ and short stories and articles in various magazines, many went as serials in The Captain and in The Strand Magazine, he raised the bar.
Of course, he had not yet found his own style, nor his own environments, but in the story Mike ( i The Captain), 1909, a certain Psmith appears in the XXXI chapter (the p is mute), and with this charming hero he got a start on an unsurpassably long and successful production. Rupert Psmith was a find, like the pseudo-communist in Eton he was. He titled everyone with the buzzword 'comrade'.
The farce became Plum's domain. After a few years came Jeeves, whose stories were told by the ‘dude’ (= then snobby trend nerd), Bertie Wooster. A grip he might have borrowed from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories told by Dr Watson. Bertie and Jeeves were seen ffg in sept. 1915, reprinted in The man with two left feet.
The success was immediate. Bertie Wooster was like the water lizard in water, always in his ace, as he went in and out of Mayfair's floors and into the country's magnificent castles and manors. Almost always in the company of the intellectually superior Jeeves, the savior in the most bizarre emergencies. A lowbrow and a highbrow in pairs, the classic pair – gentleman and valet.
In their world, everything ends well, the young get each other despite countless nasty ‘tanters’ appropriations against them, and the older men print checks. Sex does not exist in this world, if you do not count the love life of water lizards as sex.
It has been constantly said that Wodehouse's world never existed, and that soot died long before World War II, and that he just kept hammering at his Monarch, as if nothing had happened.
But, of course it has existed and still exists! That he has used his characters as a kind of commedia dell’ such figures do not mean that they would be created entirely out of the blue. Like his environments.
Norman Murphy has in his book In search of Blandings, 1981, meticulously mapped his ‘scenery’ and of course sought to determine which castle was ‘the castle’, Blandings.
Sudeley Castle is most likely Blandings, as well as Weston Park is Blandings estate, the surroundings. And the province of Shropshire in the west of England.
During one of his many trips to the United States, in 1914, Plum's road was crossed by Mrs. Ethel Wayman, an Englishwoman and widow with a daughter, Leonora. It happened two days before Germany declared war on England,
Wodehouse's approach to the covering sex is undramatic, vague, and this has, of course, raised some questions, not all of which have been satisfactorily answered, by those who have now posed them.
He was conspicuously shy and restrained when it came to portraying love, he avoided such scenes. Therefore, they are sparse. Plum's marriage with Ethel, however, brought about an increased boldness in the depictions of young love.
Ethel and Plum were soon married, in The Little Church Around the Corner (just off Madison Avenue, on 29th Street). Prior to that, he had made two attempts to report for military service against the 'Huns'. He was apparently denied all service because of his poor eyesight.
It was a long and happy marriage. Ethel was lively, amused by socializing, a strong personality. But, she must have had an inexhaustible fingertip feeling in her way of living with Plum. She wholeheartedly accepted his obsession with writing, and she could hardly have had a more understanding stepfather to her daughter (‘Snorky’, as he called her) than Plum.
Several motif circles
The interwar period became Wodehouse's most successful and financially rewarding period. He had gradually created several motifs, such as the series of books about fate and adventure at Blanding Castle, where Lord Emsworth spends all his time fattening up 'The Queen', a pig of excellent black Berkshireras, to commendable weight in the fierce competition for the most porky pigs in the county. Whether the Queen is black, gray or bright is a question for expertise and yet unanswered. She is certainly of a good pork type.
A hobby that is full of hardships, research on pig food and pig-like crime.
Plum also spanned other themes, such as ‘The Elder Member’ and a certain Mr Mulliner. There were stories of two elderly gentlemen, who either sat in the bar at Metarens Hvila or on the veranda of the local golf club, captured everyone who wanted, or did not want to, listen to their advice for all shifts in life, especially in love affairs or in trouble on fairways. All this wisdom and experience was most often exemplified by the captivating lives of Mr Mulliner's countless relatives.
For many, contemporary, readers, his golf stories are perhaps the most appreciated of the smaller motifs; it became about thirty, first published in Ett upp för Cuthbert, 1922/67, and i Oss golfare emellan, 1926/76. There are few reading golfers who have not sought amusing comfort and healing tips in his golf stories.
Although the language of golf for non-golfers can be laborious, it is difficult to miss the golf wisdom of the Elder Member when he summarizes his philosophy: “A woman is only a woman, but a hefty drive is a slosh.” Wodehouse took up golf quite late in life, but he probably saw already after the first attempt to move the little white ball far and straight and that golfers were like cut and dried for farce.
Wodehouse became one of the many writers who were attracted to Hollywood with fat honors. Like the others, he was assigned a simple haunt, a desk, and a typewriter. Start!
His efforts in Hollywood did not become many scripts, but he liked the climate and he walked to get exercise to the studio, when everyone else was driving. A kuf in the ‘glitter city’.
But then one day he caused a great deal of uproar when, in an ordered interview in his slightly naive way, he enthusiastically said that he was sitting and doing nothing for a princely fee. Hollywood never looked the same after the unintentional salvo.
However, Wodehouse learned a lot during the year and a half (1930-1931) he and his family lived in California. And, most importantly, he got a lot of hits from Hollywood's fantastic world for free.
Operettes, musicals and plays
For more than two decades (ca. 1914-1934), Wodehouse worked in theater. He sometimes wrote about his books for plays, and he adapted European operettas. Some of these pieces were neither major successes nor even premiered. But the majority could count, especially in the United States, a large number of performances.
A Damsel In Distress (1928), for example, was shown a total of 242 times in London. Swedish audiences have seen Good Morning, Bill at Regina 1982 and at Scala 1996 in Stockholm. That play is based on his book Doctor Sally.
With the apparent ease Plum had in writing verse, he naturally came to test his talents in the musical comedy. And here he started as early as 1904 at the Strand Theater in London as an employee. Not until 1934, with Anything Goes, when the ‘old’ musical comedy still was falling asleep, he stopped writing songs. During this long time he had provided composers such as Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and Cole Porter with congenial lyrics. Even today, humming Before I Met You / Bill. A song so popular that it reappears in two musicals, Oh, Lady! Lady! (1918) and Show Boat (1927).
Much has been said about Wodehouse's language and style. Everyone agrees on his stylistic brilliance, declaring it unattainable. Someone has counted adjectives and adverbs and come to the conclusion that he used these word classes very sparingly!
True, but he also writes in the best English tradition, he often and happily quotes the Great Swan from Avon and the Romans he met during Latin school hours. He alludes to lots of classics, allusions usually put in Jeeves' mouth.
He uses at most the entire wordy English language, even its fresh hose, with an uninhibited imagery. A fact that makes translations of his texts an extremely delicate task. We got early congenial translators in Vilgot Hammarling and Birgitta Hammar.
His intrigues are well woven, sometimes perhaps a bit repetitive. You can see them as comedies translated into prose. They are very easy to stage.
Wodehouse worked constantly and regularly, especially on his 'intrigues'. He often complained that the intrigues had caused him headaches. A complaint that his readers have a hard time understanding.
When he felt that one of Ethel's wife's invitations was too busy, he could sit in the kitchen and work. Or sneak into the study, between a few cocktails, and add a few hundred words to the script in the machine.
A workaholic? Maybe, but he kept in good physical shape with long walks with his dogs and with a program with so-called Swedish Exercises, which can well be interpreted as movements taken from our old Ling.
Because he was constantly asked questions about his way of working, he writes: “I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep into life and not caring a damn…”
In everything Wodehouse wrote, there is an undercurrent of indulgent parody of the Victorian short story, of early Hollywood, of the New York gangster world, and of the English upper class. His real world was the notorious playboy, the era of Edward VII; his reign included the years 1901-1910.
He kept up to date with his contemporary literature, however, he quickly put aside what he did not like. He never came across the first page of Vladimir Nabokovs Lolita, for example.
The war years
Wodehouse did not like to travel, if one now excludes all the times he crossed the 'pool'. He first lived in England, some time in France, but most of his life in the States, especially in Remsenburg on Long Island.
Plum and Ethel visited England in the summer of 1939, receiving an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. A month later, he and his childhood friend William Townend visited Dulwich College for a cricket match, which was his very last visit to England.
At the outbreak of the war, Wodehouse and his wife Ethel were in their villa in Le Touquet on the Channel coast. They were surprised, in 1940, like everyone else, by the Germans' rapid march around Belgium and into France. He became a prisoner of war, and not just any prisoner of war.
During his captivity, Wodehouse was moved from France to Belgium, to Germany and finally to France. A few days after his ‘captivity’ at the Hotel Adlon in Berlin in June 1941 – he had been treated well and actually lived quite princely – he was asked if he did not want to talk radio to his American readers. Yes, he put up with that. He gave five such speeches, in his own way. He rallied over his situation and the Germans, he joked about most things. Who could have expected anything else?
The radio speeches were listened to only by a few Englishmen, they were directed to the United States, but they made a pandemonium of a seldom seen kind. He was declared by some in the English tabloid intelligentsia as a pariah, as the worst traitor, a Quisling! To joke about Germans as harmless, boot-executing idiots when they dropped bombs on central England? With titles like: How To Be An Internee In Your Spare Time Without Previous Experience.
Even before giving his last two speeches, Wodehouse became aware of the reaction in England. He then denied that he "bought his freedom" to speak on German radio. During the autumn of the same year, Wodehouse realized the seriousness of the attack on him in e.g. BBC. Nothing could have surprised him more! He had only contributed to the war effort in his own way!
After a brief arrest in a French hospital, he and Ethel were released and they remained in France for a time, until 1947. By April 1944, his beloved stepdaughter, 'Snorky', had died, which Wodehouse was told by British liaison Malcolm Muggeridge, which took him very hard.
During the difficult years of the war, he worked tirelessly. He wrote, in the eye of the storm, such pearls as Money at the Bank, Fullmåne and Bravo, Jeeves.
Situationen var så ansträngd, att han avgjort varken ville eller vågade återvända till England. Han slog sig i mitten av 1950-talet ner i New York, på Long Island. Han hade då gjort avbön, erkänt sin naivitet och berättat sin version av incidenten.
It took a long time before he was taken to grace in England. Debates about his war speech still appear. Old friends turned their backs on him, others stood by his side; such as George Orwell and Malcolm Muggeridge who took him in defense and got the right proportions on his fad. The Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, also supported him. But, he never returned to England. And it was slow to recover all the old readers there, while the Americans continued to appreciate him for what he gave them, an England they had never met. His speech is said to have been used as teaching material in American counterintelligence!
It is uncomfortable to now read the ‘German’ talen. They are really just silly, a drift with the German internment camps, as if Bertie Wooster had written them without consulting Jeeves; the speeches are far from the media world's malicious stigmatization of him as a traitor. To take part in how parts of such a sane establishment, like the English, make Wodehouse a wolf in the veum, is still shocking today.
Wodehouse, however, was restored, he was knighted in Queen Elisabeth's New Year Honors List, 1975; he became Knight Commander of the British Empire, and he died at Long Island Hospital of a heart attack, just six weeks later, aged 93.
A friendly man…
Could Clarence, the ninth Earl of Emsworth, the lord of Blandings, be Wodehouse's alter ego? A distracted, extremely friendly man, only busy trying to win the first prize for his jewel, the sow 'The Queen of Blandings'. Why not!
Plum was a kind soul, quite a lot of a recluse, who disliked being disturbed. He was also distracted, his whole life revolved around writing, in feeding new, fresh sheets into his Monarch and filling them with what he could best – humor in a superior linguistic form.
He was worldly, genuinely disinterested in much of the general world; he and his wife Ethel's mild violence were placed in front of the television. However, he regularly watched the program ‘As the World turns’.
He was very friendly, and so kind to intrusive journalists, that he gave them the answers he thought they wanted. No brilliant companion. He was a 'performing flea', circus flea, the title of 'A self-portrait in letter form', he published in 1953.
He smoked his pipe stuffed with a strong perique and cigar tobacco, apparently without harm to his health; he ate and drank moderately, exercised diligently and regularly, and he loved his Pekingese. He was a good husband and stepfather.
A bit boring? Possible, but he rightly lived in his own world, and that world is loved by many. He is said to have been translated or read in nearly a hundred countries. His books are constantly being reprinted and many have been filmed, aired as TV series and sold as talking books. He had a hard time being serious, and he apologized for that!
Wodehouse had a special relationship with Sweden. He liked us, we translated him diligently, we bought him in surprisingly large editions. His astonishment at our affection has raised the question of why we Swedes read him more than many other peoples. Do we have more humor…? Or is it the merit of our brilliant translators? Probably!
His friends Mike, Psmith, Ukridge, Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, Mr Mulliner, Hon. Gally Threepwood, aunts Agatha and Dahlia, chef Anatole and others, among others. – are our friends. A friendship we share with millions of other readers.
So, why should Plum Wodehouse not be called the funniest writer of the twentieth century?