The Wodehouse Legacy

At last, I get to pay homage to one of my favorite writers: Happy birthday, P.G. Wodehouse! Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, the man who would bring us such memorable characters as Jeeves, Bertie Wooster, and the eccentric residents of Blandings Castle, was born on October 15, 1881.

Wodehouse was the son of Eleanor and Henry Ernest Wodehouse, both members of the Norfolk landed gentry. Henry was a judge in Hong Kong, and when P.G. was three, he was sent back to England with his brothers for schooling. He spent many of his holidays with his aunts, which might have inspired the later gaggles of horrible female relatives who frequently appear in his novels.

After P.G.’s school days were over his father found him a position in a bank, which he hated (although it gave him fodder for his novel Psmith in the City). He wrote part time while working at the bank and became a journalist with The Globe in 1902, taking over the comic column from a friend. Before long, he was contributing to Punch, Vanity Fair, Daily Express, and two schoolboys’ magazines. He spent time in Greenwich Village in 1909 and sold two short stories to Cosmopolitan and Collier’s for $500, more than he’d ever earned before. Presumably this convinced him to stay in New York and become a regular contributor to Vanity Fair. In 1915, The Saturday Evening Post serialized Something New and he began collaborating with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern on musical comedies. The trio would eventually complete 18 shows together (he also collaborated with Kern and Oscar Hammerstein on Show Boat).

P.G. moved with his wife and stepdaughter to France in 1934, and when war broke out five years later, he refused to acknowledge the seriousness of it and stayed put instead of getting the hell out of there. When the Germans came steaming in, they interned him as an “enemy alien,” first in Belgium, and then in Poland. Being P.G., he occupied his time keeping his fellow prisoners entertained with witty dialogues, many of which he later adapted for a series of radio broadcasts. Yes, P.G. Wodehouse really did manage to find humor in being in a German internment camp. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade. He was released shortly before his 60th birthday and returned to Paris.

His broadcasts were not as well received in Britain as he thought they would be. For some reason, some people thought he’d been too friendly with the Nazis who’d imprisoned him. Libraries banned his books, and A.A. Milne, of Winnie the Pooh fame, became an outspoken Wodehouse critic. P.G. retaliated in the best way he knew how: by parodying his critics in his stories. Other literary luminaries, including George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, took P.G.’s side. Still, the backlash stung, and Wodehouse and his wife moved permanently to New York. He never returned to England again.

Wodehouse continued to write well into his nineties. He was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1975, but his doctor advised him not to travel to London for the investiture. His wife accepted it on his behalf from the British consul. He started showing signs of strain in January 1975, when he broke out in a stress-induced skin rash. He died of a heart attack on February 14 at the age of 93. His last novel, Sunset at Blandings, was unfinished but was still published in 1977. In all, Wodehouse wrote 96 books over the course of a 73-year career and left his fans with the indelible image of the foppish, foolish, but loveable English eccentric and his brilliant, unflappable servant.

One thought on “The Wodehouse Legacy

  1. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve only now at age 47 picked up my first Wodehouse novel, but am finding it thoroughly enjoyable. It heartens me to read your post and realize there are 95 more books by this wonderful writer waiting.

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