PG Wodehouse in his car outside his house, 1928. Photograph: Getty/Getty
Earliest Wodehouse satires discovered
Writings from 100 years ago emerge to cast new light on the author's politics
Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent
The Observer, Sunday 26 July 2009
The discovery of four satirical "playlets" by PG Wodehouse, seen by the public for the first time in 100 years this weekend, prove that the humorist - who is often viewed as apolitical - had a strong interest in public affairs from his youth.
Wodehouse is best known as the creator of the all-knowing Jeeves and his egregious boss, Bertie Wooster. However, the four sketches, written between 1904 and 1907 - and complete with lampooning songs - show he was closely engaged with British politics and happy to function somewhat as the Have I Got News For You of his day.
In a meeting room at Calders bookshop on London's South Bank yesterday, Wodehouse fans from across Europe met to read the playlets for the first time with the man who found them, literary historian Paul Spiring.
Wodehouse, or "Plum" as he was known to friends, used the sketches to parody the debate of the time about tariff reform and proposed changes to tax law that split the Conservative government, and led to a Liberal landslide in 1906.
He wrote the sketches with his friend Bertram Fletcher Robinson, known as "Bobbles", and they were published in the Daily Express and Vanity Fair before disappearing into publisher archives. Hilary Bruce, chairman of the Wodehouse Society, is among those keen to see the works. "Lovers of literature, be they scholars or simply voracious readers, are always delighted when early or little known works are collected and republished," she said.
"Scholars welcome comparison between early and later works. Wodehouse was just 22 when the first of these satires was published, and that makes them interesting to us now."
In later life the author faced angry public accusations, including from writer AA Milne, that he had sympathised with the Nazi regime in Germany.
During a period of internment in what is now Poland, Wodehouse made a series of light-hearted broadcasts that were viewed by critics as treason. His supporters, including George Orwell, defended Wodehouse by saying he was naive and not interested in politics. It is now clear this was not the case. "People who enjoy Wodehouse like to think he was apolitical, but actually as a young man he was highly attuned to the political nuances of the day," said Robert McCrum, author of the biography, Wodehouse: A Life
"He was conservative with a small 'c' - a supporter of Joseph Chamberlain and tariff reform. But he had started out as a journalist and was alert to controversy, and could always write to commission."
While Wodehouse was politically aware, McCrum suggests that the writer would have been happy to deliver pieces to suit the political position of the owners of the Daily Express.
"He would turn his hand to anything that paid, and do it well. He was ambidextrous when it came to writing, and not snooty. But more than anything at that time, he liked writing funny poems and lyrics."
Wodehouse's father was in the civil service in India, but not wealthy enough to send his son to Oxford. As a result, the young Wodehouse worked in a bank after leaving school. He hated the work, and took up writing in his spare time, hoping to establish a career that would free him from a life in finance.
As one of the first modern "freelance" writers, Wodehouse went on to satirise politicians in the character of Roderick Spode, 7th Earl of Sidcup and leader of the "Black Shorts", who appears in several Jeeves stories.
The new playlets were discovered, one by one, during four years of research by Spiring, who is also an expert on the work of Arthur Conan Doyle. He came across the first Wodehouse sketch almost by chance. "They all followed from a successful set of poems he had written known as the Parrot Poems," he said.
"They are quite powerful and show that he was very much a supporter of the Tariff Reform League and pro-Chamberlain. His writing has often given people the impression that he was above politics. But the songs show that he was quite astute."
P G Wodehouse fan reveals the real-life Jeeves
A P G Wodehouse enthusiast has revealed the real-life inspiration behind the author's seemingly improbable fictional creations.
A new study by Norman Murphy sheds light on the origins of such literary legends as Jeeves and Bertie Wooster.
By Chris Hastings and Beth Jones 06 Jan 2008 in The Telegraph
Col Murphy, a recognised expert on Wodehouse, began his researches after uncovering a letter at Sotheby's in 1973, in which the author wrote: "I always try to use a real location if I can".
He found that Lord Emsworth, the woolly-headed peer of the Blandings Castle stories who is devoted to his prize sow, the Empress of Blandings, very closely resembles William Heneage Legge, the 6th Earl of Dartmouth who in the 1920s kept a champion boar.
Col Murphy is convinced that Wodehouse would have met the earl while growing up near his country seat in Shropshire.
"Nowadays we can't believe it, but he was just dramatising stories everyone knew at the time," said Col Murphy.
They are all based on fact, he just made it funnier. The aristocrats of this country had been going around behaving in an eccentric manner for years.The character of the scheming Stanley Featherstonhaugh Ukridge, who makes his debut in Love Among the Chickens in 1906, is an amalgamation of three men: Bill Townend, one of the author's oldest friends, Leonard Carrington Craxton and Herbert Wotton Westbrook.
When it came to uncovering the truth about the resourceful valet Jeeves, Col Murphy was initially sceptical about Wodehouse's claim that he was based on his butler, Eugene Robinson.
But his research led him to interview John Millar, a friend of Wodehouse, who recalls a servant indeed called Robinson who possessed all Jeeves's attributes of quick wits and intellect. Mr Millar recalls Wodehouse describing Robinson as "a walking Encyclopaedia Britannica".
Col Murphy believes the Edwardian musical comedy star George Grossmith Junior is the most likely inspiration for Jeeves's hapless master Bertie Wooster.
He has also traced the real-life properties behind some of Wodehouse's most glorious locations.
The Junior Ganymede club, immortalised in the Jeeves stories, was inspired by a pub in Mayfair, now called I Am The Only Running Footman. Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire is confirmed to have been the inspiration for Blandings Castle.
Tony Ring, a founder member of the Wodehouse society and editor of The Wit and Wisdom of P G Wodehouse, last night welcomed the research.
But he said it was inevitable that there would be mysteries that would never be solved.
"Col Murphy has done an extraordinary job of digging. By the nature of things a tiny handful of his deductions will be erroneous. But I think that what he has come up with is 99 per cent accurate."
• Col Murphy's findings are detailed in the two-volume 'A Wodehouse Handbook'.
To darling angel Snorkles, with love from Plum
P G WODEHOUSE: A LIFE IN LETTERS EDITED BY SOPHIE RATCLIFFE
By PETER LEWIS in Mail online 25 November 2011
When I traced P G Wodehouse to his lair down an English-feeling country lane on Long Island he had not long entered his Eighties. Asked what he made of being 80 he had answered: ‘Well, the hot blood of the my seventies has cooled.’
He was a delightful host and was still busy churning out what he called ‘my stuff’. Regarding his trusty old Monarch typewriter fondly he told me: ‘I manage to wrench about three pages at a go.’ He had just given birth to another butler called Appleby. What he called ‘the feast of reason and the flow of soul’ continued for the rest of the day but it would be foolish to claim that I plumbed the inner self of Plum, as everyone called him. He was a genial oyster who didn’t open for the world’s inspection.
You get the same feeling from reading a lifetime of his letters. Only every now and then is there a glimpse of the reticent guarded vulnerable spirit behind the breezy chat about plots and output.
The output seems unstoppable. A good 2,500 words a day, a 100,000-word novel in two months, so many novels, short stories, lyrics for musicals per year, together with the hefty income from serialisations and sales.
He sounds like a satisfied factory manager, only irritated when a plot won’t come or gets stuck on the production floor. Very sharp about money. Why, he even tells his new literary agent, A P Watt, that he can only have five per cent commission instead of the usual 10 because ‘there is so little work involved in handling my stuff’.
Pretty cool, that, considering the stuff was being sold all round the world. And you should see him going after someone who’s deducted more than he should have. No flies on Wodehouse.
What is not obvious here is the amount of crafting and re-writing involved. His pages flit by as gracefully as butterflies because the sentences have been shaped and re-shaped until they’re airborne.
Writing drove his life. He did little else except walk dogs and play golf - all his pictures are taken in plus-fours. But no life runs so smoothly. There are three or four episodes that bring the scars to light.
The first was his neglected childhood. His father, a judge in Hong Kong, and his mother only visited Britain at rare intervals. Pelham, like his aristocratically named elder brothers, Armine and Peveril, were dumped like unwanted luggage with their aunts, of which they had 20. These were often fearsome Victorian ladies, ‘nephew crushers’ and models for Aunt Agatha.
There are no letters between Pelham and his parents. When his mother did pay a visit she ‘seemed like another aunt’. It was a very distant relationship which he says he accepted, like everything, philosophically. ‘I can’t remember being unhappy.’ Maybe he forgot on purpose.
Dulwich College he remembered all his life as ‘six years of unbroken bliss’ and sporting prowess. Cramming hard for a classical scholarship to Oxford, where he expected more bliss, he was cut down by the news that family finance couldn’t stand two sons at Oxford.
He was sentenced instead to two years training at the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank - and then Hong Kong itself. ‘So I have two years to establish myself on a pinnacle of fame as a writer,’ he wrote to his lifelong school chum, Bill Townend.
Bravely he soon chucked the bank for a job on the London Globe and writing school stories, getting one published as a book. Enterprisingly he took himself, steerage, to New York which was ‘like being in heaven without having to go to the bother and expense of dying’. He determined to settle there contributing stories to the magazines and lyrics to musical comedies, working with the likes of the Gershwins and Jerome Kern.
There are absolutely no love letters in his collection, hardly one to a girl. He seemed a confirmed bachelor until he met Ethel, a twice-widowed English chorus girl from England, ‘an angel in human form’.
Actually she was an intrepid single mum, fizzing with energy, an ideal complement and manager for life. They married within weeks of meeting in 1914. ‘Get married at once,’ he advised a lovelorn friend, ‘it is the greatest institution that ever was’.
With Ethel, known as Bunny, came her daughter Leonora, then 11, to be known as Snorky. Wodehouse adopted her as his own and his letters to her as she passed through school and beyond are the most intimate and unbuttoned in the book.
He writes to ‘my darling angel Snorkles’ as if they were school chums - giving her the lowdown on Prohibition, Ziegfeld, the impresario of the Follies, Hollywood (‘this is a loathsome place’) and ending ‘cheerio old lad/old egg/old cake/old scream...’
He depended on Ethel but his stifled romantic longings fancied on Leonora who became the model for his spirited heroines like Jill the Reckless. Her early death during the war devastated him.
I’ve always found it ironic that Bertie and Jeeves and Blandings Castle made their debuts in America in the Saturday Evening Post before England heard of them. How odd that he thought them up in New York. He gives an explanation: ‘I couldn’t write American stories and the only English characters the American public would read about were exaggerated dudes.’ He confides: ‘My difficulty was that Americans aren’t funny.’ Not in his way, true.
A dab hand at letters: P G Wodehouse in 1928
The great catastrophe of his life was, of course, his broadcasting from Berlin in 1941, a slur on his reputation that never quite goes away however often it is expunged. The whole saga is unravelled again here in Sophie Ratcliffe’s excellent linking narrative.
His internment by the Germans in a lunatic asylum in Upper Silesia, the humorous talks he wrote to entertain his fellow camp mates, his release at nearly 60, the apparent coincidence of meeting two Hollywood chums in Berlin, their suggestion that if he broadcast to America his fans would know he was OK... explain his readiness to broadcast the camp life pieces.
It all seems unimportant now but at the time Nazi propaganda made the most of it, hoping to impress Americans who had not yet entered the war. Of course there was outrage and accusations of treachery in Britain, where scarcely anybody heard the broadcasts or knew how harmless their content was - jokes about short-legged German commandants and smoking tea leaves instead of tobacco.
Wodehouse took a long time to realise his blunder - he was banged up without news while the war turned so sharply against Britain. His verdict on it afterwards was, as he put it to me: ‘Made an ass of myself.’ (Using the long A). ‘Had to pay the penalty.’ The penalty was never to return to England, in case there could be trouble.
Actually he was cleared and forgiven both officially and by fair-minded people straightaway. Writers like George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh defended him stoutly. But a whiff of suspicion of his patriotism clung on and must have delayed his knighthood until just before he handed in his dinner pail at 93.
Of course he knew the real world that was there and didn’t care for it much. Occasionally he gives his critics a nasty swipe. He admitted, ‘I look on myself as an historical novelist’.
But his world was not historical, it was mythical. As Evelyn Waugh wrote: ‘His characters are still in Eden’ - where many of us still love to join them for a breather
Terry Wogan salutes the genius of PG Wodehouse, interview
Ahead of a BBC Two documentary, Terry Wogan tells Michael Deacon about his lifelong love affair with the words and wit of PG Wodehouse
By Michael Deacon in The Telegraph
02 Sep 2011
Who said this? “He was staring before him with a smile so fixed and pebble-beached that I should have thought that anybody could have guessed that there sat one in whom the old familiar juice was splashing up against the back of the front teeth.”
Taken from 1934’s Right Ho, Jeeves, it’s a description of Gussie Fink-Nottle, newt-fancier and wallflower, on the occasion of his first drinking binge – and our narrator is one Bertram Wooster. But it could easily be the voice of a certain other hero of Middle England. “There sat one in whom the old familiar juice…” The lilt, the twinkle, the comic blending of colloquialism and grandiosity, the refusal to use a simple commonplace noun where a whimsical circumlocution will do: it’s Terry Wogan.
Not, of course, that Wogan is like Wooster in any other respect – Bertie never worked a day in his life, so a 50-year career as one of Britain’s leading broadcasters would almost certainly have been beyond him. But Wogan’s sense of humour, as he himself admits, was “undoubtedly” shaped by his reading of Bertie’s creator, PG Wodehouse, “the wittiest writer ever”. And in a documentary on BBC Two tonight, as part of the BBC’s Year of Books, Wogan pays tribute to his hero.
There’s no particular topical reason, unless you count the fact that it’s 130 years since the author’s birth; Wogan pitched the idea simply because he’d loved Wodehouse’s farces about masters and servants ever since he was a child. “I lived in a town called Limerick in the Deep South of Ireland,” he says down the phone from France, where he’s on holiday, “and I relied on my maiden aunt, Auntie May, because she was the manager of a bookshop in Dublin and used to send me books.
I was a little Anglophile because I listened to the Light Programme and the Goons rather than Irish radio, and I’d been brought up on Just William and Billy Bunter, so [the world of Wooster et al] wasn’t foreign to me. The way of life of Wooster, of course, was foreign, but I took it for what it was, which was fantasy and comedy and brilliant use of words.” No schoolfriends, incidentally, shared his enthusiasm – or, as Wogan puts it, “I remained, certainly in Limerick, the sole carrier of the old Wodehouse pennant.”
As Wogan says, the central joy of Wodehouse is the language, with its unique mix of learned allusion (biblical, classical, Shakespearean) and silliness; and its richness of simile (Bertie’s Uncle Tom resembles “a pterodactyl with a secret sorrow”). But Wogan also ascribes Wodehouse’s multi-million-selling popularity to his stories’ atmosphere.
“A lot of them came after the First World War, when there was a need for gaiety – and the sun always shines in his books. Nothing terrible happens. People get into scrapes, but nobody ever dies.” On top of that, nobody needs to work, apart from the servants, and – as with the most comforting children’s stories, from Jennings to Tintin – nobody ages. In Bertie’s first adventure (1915), he’s a youngish, rich, Edwardian bachelor, and in his last (1974), he’s still a youngish, rich, Edwardian bachelor. Wodehouse’s is a world in which perhaps the two greatest causes of suffering, money and time, have been abolished. War, social change, current affairs – such unpleasantnesses scarcely intrude.
They scarcely intruded on Wodehouse’s life, either – except for the unhappy episode during the Second World War, when Wodehouse was living in France and the Nazis invited him to deliver a series of humorous radio broadcasts to America, giving the impression that all in Europe was more or less well. Wodehouse gaily consented. Remarkably for a man who in his fiction showed acute understanding of human foolishness, he seems to have had no notion of the Nazis’ atrocities, and to have been unaware that they were using him as a propaganda tool.
“He was a complete innocent,” says Wogan.
Many in Britain were outraged, in particular at Wodehouse’s alma mater, Dulwich College. “Apparently any boy found with a Wodehouse book was going to be caned. That would have broken his heart. He had parents but [as a boy] he never saw them, so the school really was his family. He always wanted to know what the cricket scores were at Dulwich. His last visit to Britain was to Dulwich College. He never came back to live in Britain. It’s sad.”
If he had come back to Britain, of course, he wouldn’t have recognised it. Only in his own, fictional world does time stand endlessly, blissfully still.
In the words of another ardent Wodehousian, Evelyn Waugh, “He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.”