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P.G. Wodehouse Biography And Visits

P.G. Wodehouse, aged 23 - this image is copyright free

P.G. Wodehouse is one of my favourite writers. I read a number of his Jeeves and Wooster books to my mother during her last illness, and they were a source of relief and light heartedness during a difficult time. So in writing about Wodehouse I want to do him justice. But doing that with Wodehouse is tricky. Do you do him justice by pointing out all kinds of deep meanings in his books - which he claimed were not there to find - or is the whole point of his books that they provide escape from earnestness and deep meanings? This is something I have long pondered upon. Wodehouse books are so beautifully written and plotted, and yet they are also light and airy. They are very clever, but the risk of trying to be too clever with them is that you end up like Bertie Wooster. Bertie often gets jealous at the skillful way his butler Jeeves manipulates events. When Bertie uses very similar tactics, everything goes wrong. The same thing is likely to happen to a writer trying to write about Wodehouse books. He might mention a few events from the books, and he could talk about typical Wodehouse ideas, and yet without the master in charge it will probably all end badly. Aunt Agatha's advice to Bertie in Right Ho Jeeves should be bourne in mind by anyone writing on Wodehouse: " I might have known some hideous disaster would strike this house like a thunderbolt once you wriggled your way into it and started trying to be clever."

It takes a Jeeves to be clever, and Jeeves with his shimmering in and out of rooms is almost not of this world. But be that as it may, I would like to have a go at writing about Wodehouse because he does mean a lot to me. So putting Aunt Agatha's advice aside I decided to read something of Wodehouse's life, using Joseph Connolly's biography. Wodehouse declared that since he had a good life, he didn't know the pain required for great writing. Was that true? Was everything really just a breeze for him, reflected in his books where people worry about silly things, and all those worries come right in the end anyway? I picked up Connolly's book aiming to find out.



P.G. Wodehouse's father, Henry Ernest Wodehouse was a civil servant, and spent much of his career working in Hong Kong. He married Eleanor Deane, a reverend's daughter from Bath, in 1877. Following the birth of two older brothers, Philip Peveril and Ernest Armine, a third son named Pelhan Grenville Wodehouse - usually called Plum - was born on 15th October 1881, while his mother was visiting a friend in Guildford, Surrey. Little Plum spent his first two years with his family in Hong Kong. Then it was decided, mainly it seems by his father, that an English education was required. So the three Wodehouse brothers were sent to live with a guardian in Bath, a Miss Roper, who according to Connolly was "a miserable humourless thing... much possessed of all traditionally dreary virtues such as scrupulous - if not fanatical - cleanliness, orderliness and formality" (P.G. Wodehouse P4). This couldn't have been a pleasant, carefree environment in which to grow up. There was no prospect of parental rescue, since visits from Mr and Mrs Wodehouse were spread seven years apart. And yet as an adult Wodehouse was adamant that he did not suffer, and even was to later claim that his happy childhood kept him free from the pain that would potentially make him a great writer. It is very difficult to know what to make of this. It is difficult to say that the Wodehouse childhood was carefree, but it is easier to say that a quiet resiliance was demonstrated by it, a quality that would also be very apparent in years to come.


In 1886 there was a move to a small school in Croydon run by two spinster sisters, named Cissie and Florrie. Once again the emphasis was on formality, Christianity, and avoidance of anything approaching indulgence. The boys were given a few pence a week pocket money, which they were then obliged to give away to those more needy and deserving than themselves. After Cissie and Florrie's establishment came a move to a school in Guernsey, chosen as a location which might be helpful to PG's "weak chest". There was then unwelcome talk of sending the boy off to the navy. Plum had recently visited his brother Armine at Dulwich College, a public school in south east London. Impressed by the school he begged to be sent there rather than to the navy. Eventually his parents agreed, and PG started at Dulwich College on 2nd May 1894. Initially there seemed to be some difficulty following in his brilliant older brother's footsteps, but nevertheless Dulwich seems to represent a very happy period in PG's life. He dealt with his natural shyness by working hard, and did well enough to win a scholarship to Oxford. Unfortunately Armine had also won an Oxford scholarship, and their now retired father could not afford to support both boys at university. So PG as the younger son stood aside. To make up for this loss he threw himself into sport, which he was good at, and he wrote for, and edited, the school magazine - known as The Alleynian. In his last term at Dulwich, PG wrote an essay called Some Aspects of Games Captaincy which was printed in The Public School Magazine. They even paid a fee, of half a guinea. The plan now was for a career in banking, and in the autumn of 1900 a job was found at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in Lombard Street. While bank work certainly did not suit Wodehouse, articles written in spare time away from the bank kept on coming. In 1901 Wodehouse got a regular column called By The Way in The Globe Magazine. In the same year a novel called The Pothunters was published by A.C. Black. Soon enough money was being made to allow escape from the bank. By 1904 P.G. Wodehouse, the author, had five books published, a song lyric used in a show, his regular By The Way column, and a weekly poem in Vanity Fair. He worked all the time and had little or no social life. Progress continued, with more novels, and trips to America where Wodehouse books were beginning to sell. In 1909 there was a short lived attempt to move to New York, which didn't work out. Instead Wodehouse bought a house in Emsworth, Hampshire and settled down to years of constant writing, with regular trips to America. Blandings Castle became well established for many stories set in the world of the British upper class. Psmith became a well established character.


The Serpentine in Hyde Park where Wodehouse would walk his dogs

Then in the summer of 1914 in New York the rather solitary early Wodehouse career came to an end when he was introduced to a young widow named Ethel Rowley, and her nine year old daughter Leonora. Wodehouse married Ethel that year, and the new family lived in properties in Long Island and New York. In Europe World War One had begun. Wodehouse tried to enlist, but being turned away because of poor eyesight, he went back to his writing. There was an endless stream of novels and short stories - including the first Jeeves and Wooster story in 1917, called Extricating Young Gussie. There were also a number of musicals, written in collaboration with Guy Bolton, Jerome Kern and George Gershwin. In 1930 Hollywood discovered Wodehouse, and he went to live in California under contract to MGM. MGM, however, didn't seem to want much work in return for their massive $2000 a week salary. Wodehouse lived to work, and in an interview he amiably pointed out that he was being paid a great deal of money for not doing much. MGM were not pleased and sacked him. Rather than causing disruption, this merely allowed Wodehouse to get back to continual writing. If disruption did come it was not from MGM but from Ethel who loved throwing parties and living the high life. She bought a mansion in Park Lane, where her husband would do his best to avoid the constant socialising by walking his beloved Pekinese dogs in Hyde Park, or by disappearing off to write. In this way the years passed. Money didn't mean much to Wodehouse, but he had a lot of parties to support, so tax became an issue in the mid 1930s. Constant trans-Atlantic commuting meant that tax was being paid twice on his UK and US earnings in both countries. Financial advisors suggested that living in France would mean being able to pay US tax on just US earnings, and UK tax on only British income. So a house was purchased in Le Touquet, just as a new Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, Cole Poter musical called Anything Goes was opening with great success. Hollywood also decided it wanted Wodehouse back. This meant another huge salary from MGM, and accommodation in Gaylord Hauser's house in Beverly Hills, where naturally Ethel threw lavish parties.


Up until now, at least once the potentially tough childhood had passed, the life of Wodehouse could be looked upon as charmed. But in the late 1930s as the threat of war gathered in Europe, a very dark period began. Wodehouse, immersed as he was in writing, found himself in Le Touquet when Germany invaded France in 1940. He and Ethel tried to get to the coast by car, but the car broke down. Then an RAF aircraft offered a seat, but had no room for Ethel or the dogs. Wodehouse did not get on the plane. Once the Germans reached Le Touquet, Wodehouse was arrested and sent to Loos prison, before a terrifying transfer by cattle rail truck to a prison camp in Liege, Belgium. Food for a day consisted of two mugs of coffee, one bowl of soup and a piece of bread, or a portion of tiny biscuits. After five weeks in Liege there was another cattle truck transfer to Tost in Upper Silesia where Wodehouse and his fellow internees were confined in the local psychiatric hospital. As a celebrity Wodehouse was offered special privileges, which he wisely refused. He suffered the same harsh prison camp regime as everyone else, a regime which broke many of the men. A few committed suicide, and others lost their sanity. An inmate named Bob Whitby recalled Wodehouse simply ignoring the hardship and getting on with writing Full Moon. Whitby also spoke with much gratitude of the way the steady Wodehouse did his best to cheer up his terrified friend. But in many ways the worst was yet to come. On 21st June 1941 Wodehouse was granted partial freedom, four months before his 60th birthday, when under the terms of intern regulations he would have been released anyway. This slightly early release could have been the result of a representation made by American admirers. Wodehouse was moved to a hotel in Berlin. He then made five broadcasts to America about life as an internee, at the instigation of a German friend from his Hollywood days, and a senior German foreign service official, who thought this would be a good way to show the Americans that internees were being humanely treated. Wodehouse's aim was to assure his American admirers, who had possibly secured the slightly early release, that he was alive and well. Unfortuntately the broadcasts were viewed in Britain as an act of treachery, as fratenising with the enemy. The darkness of this period was compounded by the sudden death of Wodehouse's much loved step dauther Leonora during a routine surgical procedure in London in 1943. Difficulties continued when Wodehouse was sent from Berlin to Paris. He was in Paris when France was liberated in 1945, and was arrested there by the British government. He spent a short time under arrest, confined bizarrely to a Paris hospital. Wodehouse simply kept on writing his latest novel - Uncle Dynamite. Fortunately confinement to the Paris hospital did not last long, as he was given much needed help by Malcolm Muggeridge who had been sent to Paris by HM government to keep an eye on Wodehouse. Getting to know the man he was supposed to be supervising, Muggeridge quickly became very fond of Wodehouse, seeing him as someone who had difficulty hating or talking badly of anyone. Muggeridge turned into a great Wodehouse supporter and helped bring a measure of normality back to his life. Wodehouse showed the same quiet resiliance through these turbulent epsiodes as he showed during the war. He just kept on writing. During the war and its painful aftermath five novels were completed - Money In The Bank, Joy In The Morning, Full Moon, Spring Fever and Uncle Dynamite.

After the war writing simply continued as it always had. Finding Britain less than welcoming, Wodehouse became an American citizen in 1955 and lived in Remsenburg, Long Island. Official British acceptance of Wodehouse eventually led to the granting of a knighthood in 1975, but following medical advice Wodehouse did not travel to attend the investiture in London. Within days of being granted his knighthood P.G. Wodehouse was admitted into Long Island's Southhampton Hospital. In his hospital bed he kept working on a novel that would later be known as Sunset at Blandings. It was here that he died on 14th February 1975.

So what do we make of all that in light of the novels? Well, the main thing you can say is that P.G. Wodehouse showed remarkable resiliance in his life. He trusted that things would work out alright in the end, and just kept writing his books. Fittingly many of his books also portray a world in which things have to be allowed to work out in the end. Bertie Wooster comes up with all kinds of schemes to make things turn out right. These schemes always end in disaster. He should trust in his enigmatic butler Jeeves, who always seems to know what to do. Not only is Jeeves in quiet control, he is not above thoroughly punishing Bertie if the incompetent young aristocrat has the temerity to think for himself. Bertie seems to be the employer, but Jeeves holds the real power. Bertie should relax, enjoy pleasant undemanding pursuits at the Drones Club, in Cannes and at various country houses, and trust in Jeeves. The novel as a form evolved from eighteenth century religious tracts, and with this religious background in mind the all seeing and knowing Jeeves is a fascinasting development. And if you think it's a bit much to compare Jeeves to God, then I'd just like to point out that I am not the only one. As Bertie says: "For your information Catsmeet, Jeeves takes a size 14 hat, eats tons of fish, and moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform."

Jeeves suggests that there is a plot and a meaning in life. But this is a meaning which defies simple explantion. As soon as Bertie has a go at devising plots and plans then everything falls to pieces. Jeeves shimmers in and out, appearing and disappearing in an almost supernatural way, his plots incorporating a lightness of touch which earth bound Bertie and his friends cannot emulate no matter how hard they try. Jeeves inhabits a world where there is reassurance and relief, without any of the weighty meaning which ironically is not often welcome when one needs reassurance and relief, in times of illness for example. You can't concentrate on deep meaning when you're ill. That is why Wodehouse is such a refuge when you're feeling unwell.



Berkeley Castle, a model for Blandings Castle and gardens?

If you want to visit places linked to Wodehouse, there's Dulwich College which has a desk, chair, typewriter and a few personal items which once belonged to the school's famous old boy. As for locations which inspired the stories, there has also been much speculation regarding places which might have inspired Blandings Castle and gardens where so many Wodehouse stories are set. There are not many inhabited castles left in Britain, which narrows the field. Some authors have suggested Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire, which is privately owned, and can be visited on a limited basis. Interestingly there's also Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. It has been pointed out that Wodehouse's description of Blandings Castle in Leave It To Psmith is very close to garden designer Gertrude Jekyll's description of Berkeley Castle in a book called Classic English Gardens . In Leave It To Psmith Wodehouse writes: "Tiny mosses have grown in the cavities of the stones, until, viewed near at hand, the place seems shaggy with vegetation." Gertrude Jekyll wrote of Berkeley in Classic English Gardens: "Tiny mosses have grown in their cavities... here grasses and many kinds of wild plants have found a home, until, viewed from near at hand, the mighty walls and their sustaining buttresses are seen to be shaggy with vegetation." So perhaps Berkeley is one of the most suitable of places to experience the world of P.G. Wodehouse.

You could also go for a walk in Hyde Park where Wodehouse spent many hours walking his dogs, thinking about his books, and avoiding Ethel's parties.





Novels by P.G. Wodehouse: