Friday, February 01, 2013
Post These Letters, Jeeves. Thanks, Old Bean.
Writing to his agent in 1935, the comic novelist P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) proposed an essay about literary criticism that he planned to call “Back to Whiskers.” This piece is still worth rooting around to find.
Edited by Sophie Ratcliffe
Illustrated. 602 pages. W. W. Norton & Company. $35.
Wodehouse was among the best-paid and best-loved writers in the world during the 1930s, a British institution, and he could afford to have a sense of humor about critics. He had found that “jolly old Fame” suited him.
His deliriously funny novels about the foppish and “mentally negligible” aristocrat Bertie Wooster, the imperturbable valet Jeeves and an enormous Berkshire pig named the Empress of Blandings, among other characters, were best sellers. He’d written Broadway musicals with Jerome Kern. He was fresh from Hollywood, where he’d composed screenplays and palled around with Mary Pickford and Edward G. Robinson. Oxford University had awarded him an honorary doctorate.
But things turned for Wodehouse during World War II. Imprisoned by the German Army, he recorded a series of radio broadcasts, intended to be funny and inspiring to those back home, that backfired badly. That his voice was on Nazi radio outraged his countrymen. He later admitted his “ghastly blunder,” but it took many years for people to forgive him.
Nearly as bad for Wodehouse, the world had changed. In his excellent biography “Wodehouse: A Life” (2004) Robert McCrum noted: “As George Orwell pointed out, Wodehouse became associated in the public mind with the wealthy, idle, aristocratic nincompoops he often wrote about, and made an ideal whipping boy for the left.”