By Robert McCrumNorton
I daresay that one can claim, without running overmuch risk of contradiction, to have been reading Frederick Taylor's recent history of the obliteration of Dresden with no intention of looking for laughs. And yet when I reached page 46, I found myself open-mouthed with joy, and eager to share my mirth. Taylor carefully sets the scene of pre-war Nazi Saxony, and devotes several paragraphs to the unpleasing figure of Martin Mutschmann, the party gauleiter. From these passages I learned that Herr Mutschmann had left school at fourteen and had taken "various management positions in lace and underwear companies." I at once laid down the book and wondered whom I should call or e-mail with this precious page reference.
Some of you who are still with me will already have caught my drift. In the climactic scene of The Code of the Woosters, Bertie confronts Sir Roderick Spode, the sinister bully who is "founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a Fascist organization better known as the Black Shorts." He reduces Spode to a jelly by disclosing that he knows the would-be dictator's ghastly secret—his ownership of Eulalie Soeurs, a female underwear consortium. Devotees of this incandescently funny novel may quarrel with my brief summary here. Bertie needs to fail hilariously at least once, and to enlist the help of the invaluable Jeeves before he can bring off the coup. However, I can confidently expect some fellow sufferers to write in, and to thank me in broken tones for this confirming serendipity.
Indeed, if anything could ever put one off being a Wodehouse fan, it would be the somewhat cultish element among his admirers and biographers. Such people have a tendency to allude to him as "The Master." They publish monographs about the exact geographical location of Blandings Castle, or the Drones Club. They hold dinners at which breadstuffs are thrown. Their English branch publishes the quarterly Wooster Sauce, and their American branch publishes the quarterly Plum Lines: two painfully unfunny titles. They materialize, in other words, Evelyn Waugh's view that Wodehouse created a delightful, self-contained world of his own. The only modern comparison I can think of is to the sterner "Irregulars" who have their shrine at 221b Baker Street.
Robert McCrum is by no means immune from the lure of all this, but his biography has a tendency to let in daylight upon the magic. Wodehouse was a rather beefy, hearty chap, with a lifelong interest in the sporting subculture of the English boarding school and a highly developed instinct for the main chance. He had no sex life or love life worth recording, and seemed to reserve his affections primarily for animals. He was so self-absorbed that he was duped into collaboration with the Nazis and had to plead the "bloody fool" defense. His subsequently wrecked reputation was redeemed only by an almost manic focus on work, and by an insistence on reproducing a lost and dreamy world of English innocence.
Well, to take these points in reverse order, there's no mystery about the continuing fascination of Blandings Castle and the universe of Jeeves, or their appeal for those who have never met a butler or received an invitation to an English country house. George Orwell pointed out long ago, in his penetrating essay on "Boys' Weeklies," that the children of the back streets would spend their scant pocket money in order to immerse themselves in stories about upper-crust life in ivy-covered "public" schools. And why should this astonish us, when we see today's American youngsters stating with confidence which "house" at Hogwarts School they would join if they only could? Fantasy worlds are so-called for good reason, and richly and rightly rewarded is the author who can truly create one.
As for the bizarre moment when the creator of Jeeves and Ukridge and Psmith appeared on Nazi radio after being trapped by the fall of France, McCrum is only the latest of many biographers to acquit his subject on the main charge. Here is one of the opening paragraphs of Wodehouse's first chat, broadcast on June 28, 1941:
Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me, "How can I become an Internee?" Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet on the coast of France and stay there till the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest system. You buy the villa and the Germans do the rest.
The genius of this, in my opinion, lies not merely in its deadpan intonation but in its essential truth. (There must have been, one likes to think, an editor in Berlin who vetted the transcript and said to himself, "That seems harmless enough.") Wodehouse and his wife, Ethel, had in fact followed exactly that "system," and had been too innocent and unworldly to try and run away until it was too late. They had also been unwilling to put their Pekingese in quarantine—which goes to show how far the stereotype of the English dog lover can be pushed. Fat-headed as he was for accepting the Germans' invitation in the first place, Wodehouse was not actually working for Joseph Goebbels and his Ministry of Propaganda. He was, as McCrum shows, being used by the more civilized elements in the German Foreign Office, who disliked Goebbels. Unlikely as it is that he would have appreciated the difference, Wodehouse responded to the baited invitation with the genial attitude of one who says "When in Rome," or "One must be civil." It's quite impossible that the man who had invented Sir Roderick Spode in 1938 was prey to any covert sympathy for fascism.
Prior to this moment of hideous embarrassment, Wodehouse had manifested the same almost childlike stoicism when deported from France and interned in a disused lunatic asylum in the town of Tost, Poland. As he was later to put it, "Tost is no beauty spot. It lies in the heart of sugar-beet country … There is a flat dullness about the countryside which has led many a visitor to say, 'If this is Upper Silesia, what must Lower Silesia be like?'"
McCrum and his fellow Wodehousian Anthony Lane, of The New Yorker, have both fractionally raised their eyebrows at this levity, given that Silesia was the site of Auschwitz. (McCrum also falls into error when he says that "by association" Wodehouse had put himself into "the company of genuine traitors like William Joyce." Joyce—"Lord Haw Haw"—may have been a genuine fascist, but he was a U.S. citizen who owed no allegiance to the British crown. The British government's decision to execute him after the war was a judicial scandal.) There is absolutely no reason to think that Wodehouse knew what was afoot in the East, and in any case the Final Solution did not begin until after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, which did not commence until after Wodehouse had done to Tost what Bertie did to Totleigh Towers: shaken its dust from his feet.
Innumerable English reminiscences of prison-camp life during the Second World War are devoted to making one point: it was all much easier to bear if you had the experience of an English boarding school under your belt. Nicknames for obnoxious guards, complaints about the food, jokes based on the absence of females, the lampooning of stupid routines—it was an invitation to re-create the lost world of boyhood, and Wodehouse actually finished Money in the Bank, to be ranked among his more amusing novels, while in the self-evidently absurd position of an internee. One might also add that during the process of deportation, a German soldier came up to shake his hand and to say "Thank you for Jeeves." This helped confirm Wodehouse in his view that people were all basically good chaps underneath, when you got to know them.