P. G. Wodehouse
P. G. Wodehouse
Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, KBE
(15 October 1881 – 14 February 1975) was a comic writer who enjoyed enormous
popular success during a career of more than seventy years and continues to be
widely read over 30 years after his death. Despite the political and social
upheavals that occurred during his life, much of which was spent in France and
the United States, Wodehouse's main canvas remained that of prewar English
upper-class society, reflecting his birth, education, and youthful writing
An acknowledged master of English
prose, Wodehouse has been admired both by contemporaries such as Hilaire
Belloc, Evelyn Waugh and Rudyard Kipling and by modern writers such as Douglas
Adams, Salman Rushdie and Terry Pratchett. Sean O'Casey famously called him
"English literature's performing flea", a description that Wodehouse
used as the title of a collection of his letters to a friend, Bill Townend.
Best known today for the Jeeves and
Blandings Castle novels and short stories, Wodehouse was also a talented
playwright and lyricist who was part author and writer of fifteen plays and of
250 lyrics for some thirty musical comedies. He worked with Cole Porter on the
musical Anything Goes (1934) and frequently collaborated with Jerome Kern and
Guy Bolton. He wrote the lyrics for the hit song "Bill" in Kern's
Show Boat (1927), wrote the lyrics for the Gershwin - Romberg musical Rosalie
(1928), and collaborated with Rudolf Friml on a musical version of The Three
"Plum" by most family and friends, was born prematurely to Eleanor
Wodehouse (née Deane) whilst she was visiting Guildford. His father
Henry Ernest Wodehouse (1845–1929) was a British judge in Hong Kong. The
Wodehouse family had been settled in Norfolk for many centuries. Wodehouse's
great-grandfather Reverend Philip Wodehouse was the second son of Sir Armine
Wodehouse, 5th Baronet, whose eldest son John Wodehouse, 1st Baron Wodehouse,
was the ancestor of the Earls of Kimberley. His godfather was Pelham von Donop
after whom he was named.
When he was just 3 years old,
Wodehouse was brought back to England and placed in the care of a nanny. He
attended various boarding schools and, between the ages of three and 15 years,
saw his parents for barely 6 months in total. (McCrum, 2004, pp 14-15)
Wodehouse grew very close to his brother, who shared his love for art.
Wodehouse filled the voids in his life by writing relentlessly. He spent quite
a few of his school holidays with one aunt or another; it has been speculated
that this gave him a healthy horror of the "gaggle of aunts",
reflected in Bertie Wooster's formidable aunts Agatha and Dahlia, as well as
Lady Constance Keeble's tyranny over her many nieces and nephews in the
Blandings Castle series.
Wodehouse was educated at Dulwich
College, where the library is now named after him, but his anticipated
progression to university was stymied by family financial problems.
Subsequently he worked for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in London (now known
as HSBC) for two years, though he was never interested in banking as a career.
He wrote part-time while working in the bank, eventually proving successful
enough to take up writing as a full-time profession. He was a journalist with
The Globe (a defunct English newspaper) for some years before moving to New
York, where he worked for a time as theatre critic of The New Yorker,
collaborated with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern on several musical comedies, and
began publishing short stories and novels. In the 1930s, he had two brief
stints as a screenwriter in Hollywood, where he claimed he was greatly
over-paid. Many of his novels were also serialised in magazines such as The
Saturday Evening Post and The Strand, which also paid well.
Wodehouse married Ethel Wayman in
1914, gaining a stepdaughter, Leonora. He had no biological children, perhaps
owing to having contracted mumps as a young man.
Life in France
Although Wodehouse and his novels
are considered quintessentially English, from 1914 onward he shared his time
between England and the United States. In 1934, he took up residence in France,
to avoid double taxation on his earnings by the tax authorities in Britain and
the US. He was also profoundly uninterested in politics and world affairs. When
World War II broke out in 1939 he remained at his seaside home in Le Touquet,
France, instead of returning to England, apparently failing to recognise the
seriousness of the conflict. He was subsequently taken prisoner by the Germans
in 1940 and interned by them for a year, first in Belgium, then at Tost (now
Toszek) in Upper Silesia (now in Poland). He is recorded as saying, "If
this is Upper Silesia, one wonders what Lower Silesia must be like..."
While at Tost, he entertained his
fellow prisoners with witty dialogues. After being released from internment, a
few months short of his 60th birthday, he used these dialogues as a basis for a
series of radio broadcasts made of his own free will, but many assumed that
they were made under German persuasion. Wartime England was in no mood for
light-hearted banter, however, and the broadcasts led to many accusations of
collaboration with the Nazis and even treason. Some libraries banned his books.
Foremost among his critics was A. A. Milne, author of the Winnie the Pooh
books; Wodehouse got some revenge by creating a ridiculous character named
Timothy Bobbin, who starred in parodies of some of Milne's children's poetry.
Among Wodehouse's defenders were Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell. An
investigation by the British security service MI5 concluded that Wodehouse was
naive and foolish but not a traitor.
The criticism led Wodehouse and his
wife to move permanently to New York. Apart from Leonora, who died during
Wodehouse's internment in Germany, they had no children. He became an American
citizen in 1955 and never returned to his homeland, spending the remainder of
his life in Remsenburg, Long Island.
He was made a Knight Commander of
the Order of the British Empire (KBE) shortly before his death at the age of
93. It is widely believed that the honour was not given earlier because of
lingering resentment about the German broadcasts. In a BBC interview he said
that he had no ambitions left now that he had been knighted and there was a
waxwork of him in Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. His doctor advised him not to
travel to London to be knighted, and his wife later received the award on his
behalf from the British consul. 
In 2000, the Bollinger Everyman
Wodehouse Prize was established and named in honour of PG Wodehouse and awards
an annual prize for the finest example in the UK of comic writing.
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