The Honorable Schoolboy

P. G. Wodehouse was a very advanced case of arrested development. Lucky for us

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.

There can be little doubt that Wodehouse was a very advanced case of arrested development. Born into a family of colonial merchants and civil servants, he was abandoned by his parents for long stretches and learned to find and maintain his equilibrium in (aha!) the servants' quarters and (aha! again) the comradeship of all-male boarding schools. In the comparable cases of Kipling and Saki this entailed the early realization that childhood was a place of terror, not innocence. In the case of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (he disliked both his given names and rather grudgingly accepted the nickname "Plum" that resulted) the resolution was more like that of young Matzerath in The Tin Drum: he would simply stop growing up. McCrum takes too little account of the mumps that struck Wodehouse in adolescence. It seems fairly obvious that this early affliction had a gelding effect on him, stunting his libido and making him noticeable, even to his least curious friends, as a large, pink, plump, hairless, and somewhat neuter person for the rest of his life. This was the high price he paid for the protective Eden that he never escaped.

Two other boyhood deprivations might have become a source of resentment. Wodehouse, who had always assumed that he would "go up" to Oxford University, was abruptly told by his parents that the family funds would not run to it. He was told, further, that he would have to work in a menial position in the London branch of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. Though not as demeaning as debtors' prison or an apprenticeship in a blacking factory, this combination of disappointment and tedium might have shriveled a lesser soul. Again, McCrum only skates over the evidence that Wodehouse took a keen interest in the street-corner speakers of the early British socialist movement. A number of his mature stories—most notably Archibald and the Masses—demonstrate that he picked up more than a passing knowledge of the leftist vernacular. In the earlier tales, most obviously Psmith in the City, we learn that young Psmith became a devotee of Marxist theory when he was taken away from Eton and robbed of the chance to play cricket for the most snobbish school team in the country. Writing about Henry Hyndman, the founder of the Social Democratic Federation and a contemporary of Karl Marx, Barbara Tuchman said that he "adopted socialism out of spite against the world because he was not included in the Cambridge eleven." Benny Green, an earlier Wodehouse biographer, encapsulates Psmith's ethos as "an irrefutable argument that most work is a distasteful necessity which nobody in his right mind would ever dream of performing unless he needed the money desperately." Actually, this is hardly less true of many of the later stories, wherein a shortage of ready money comes second only to blighted romance as an obstacle to felicity.

McCrum tends to stress Wodehouse's later conservatism—his aversion to the Hollywood Communists in the Screenwriters Guild, for example, and his long battle with the tax authorities in England and America. Some of the more Marxist Wodehousians, such as Alexander Cockburn and Francis Wheen, conversely emphasize the Spode satire, or the salient point that the upper classes in Wodehouse's world are helplessly dependent on their manservants and pig keepers. The honors here can be divided more or less equally. What Wodehouse did discover, though, was that once he had cast off the shackles of the proletarian condition and become self-employed, the long day was never done. This book depicts a man who eventually managed to live in grand and comfortable circumstances, but who never for a single moment forgot that he had an infinitely demanding and ruthless taskmaster—himself. Class be damned; but he was a worker all right. His chief skill lay in making the product of his labor look easy.

He toiled in three demanding vineyards: musical comedy, screenwriting, and fiction. And he would seem to have made the decision, quite early in life, to become an American. The two determinations were obviously related, because in the early decades of the twentieth century it was evident to any aspiring Brit that New York was (a) where the action was and (b) where the money was. Still, it comes as a slight surprise to find him writing, "in a perfect agony of boredom" with London in the 1920s, that "all I want to do is get back and hear the American language again." This surprise, however, is soon overtaken by the realization that American idioms, especially the idioms of the Prohibition era—"rannygazoo," "hornswoggle," "put on the dog," "bum's rush," "dude"—pervade the speech of his characters. Indeed, it was as an American, or at any rate as a writer with a large American audience, that he was thought useful by the Germans during the long period of U.S. neutrality. However much people like to yoke him with the phrase "quintessentially English," it was on American soil that he did much if not most of his best work. It's nice to remember that at his formative Dulwich School he was a near contemporary of Raymond Chandler's.

In Hollywood, where he didn't do much memorable work but did make a considerable amount of money, he helped found the Hollywood Cricket Club, in 1931. Its members included Boris Karloff, Errol Flynn, and David Niven (who appears in the movie version of Thank You, Jeeves). To this we are indebted, clearly, for the marvelous opening scene of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One.

Jazz Age Wodehouse, as caught by McCrum, is out on Long Island with the Scott Fitzgeralds, staying at the Algonquin, sweeping up Broadway in triumph with Jerome Kern and Cole Porter, writing musical parts for William Randolph Hearst's future sweetie Marion Davies, hobnobbing with Flo Ziegfeld, and getting hot reviews from George S. Kaufman and Dorothy Parker. Frank Crowninshield, of Vanity Fair, paid him top dollar. But all the time, in this world saturated with money and glamour and sex, he remained, in McCrum's phrase, "the laureate of repression." And he was, when he got home to his desk, slowly evolving the primal innocence of Lord Emsworth and Bertie Wooster—an attainment that would bring him fame far beyond the Great White Way.

Attempting to explain this dissonance between the knowing and the guileless, and between the cynical world of gay-dominated musical comedy and the blameless universe of Bertie and the Earl, I once proposed that Wodehouse must have seen or read The Importance of Being Earnest and somehow sublimated it. The theory is pathetically simple once you start to test it: Oscar Wilde's play opens with some witty backchat between an idle young bachelor and his butler, proceeds to introduce a terrifying aunt in the shape of Lady Bracknell, and carries on with two intertwined and frivolous engagements, which are resolved in a country house with the help of a silly rural clergyman. With Wodehouse as with Wilde, nobody has any father or mother, only aunts and uncles. (I can go on about this at length if challenged, mentioning the dates when Wodehouse began going to the theater and not omitting the fact that his father was named Ernest.) McCrum even makes a bow in my direction, asserting that although Wodehouse undoubtedly knew of Reginald Bunthorne, the "fleshly poet" satirized by Gilbert and Sullivan in Patience, he never included any Wildeisms in his widely scattered literary allusions.

Nor did he—by allusion, at any rate. But I've recently been unhorsed by Mark Grueter, a brilliant graduate student of mine, who came across the following in the story Pigs Have Wings. Set in Blandings Castle, as the title implies, it features the scapegrace Galahad Threepwood ("Gally") and the mettlesome American girl Penny Donaldson. The ambition of this dangerous young woman is to keep an appointment with her unsuitable suitor, Jerry Vail, in London. Lord Emsworth's forbidding sister Lady Constance, warns Galahad, will not hear of this.

"The expedition arrives in London tomorrow afternoon, so tomorrow night I shall be dining with my Jerry."

Gally gazed at her in amazement. Her childish optimism gave him a pang.

"With Connie keeping her fishy eye on you? Not a hope."

"Oh yes, because there's an old friend of Father's in London, and Father would never forgive me if I didn't take this opportunity of slapping her on the back and saying hello. So I shall dine with her."

"And she will bring your young man along?"

"Well, between us girls, Gally, she doesn't really exist. I'm like the poet in Shakespeare, I'm giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. Did you ever see The Importance of Being Earnest?"

"Don't wander from the point."

"I'm not wandering from the point. Do you remember Bunbury, the friend the hero invented? This is his mother, Mrs. Bunbury. You can always arrange these things with a little tact."

I devoutly wish, but not for the sake of my theory, that I had never had to read this passage. It does prove, after all, my original point that Wodehouse must have read or seen the play. But it makes the reference in such clunking, leaden tones that one would prefer to have been kept guessing. Most of Wodehouse's beautifully timed literary nudges do not give chapter and verse. (And Algernon as "the hero"?) So I sadly propose that we have here a fusion of the workaholic and the self-conscious: a grisly combination that doesn't recur until the groan-making moment, in Aunts Aren't Gentlemen (1974), when Bertie Wooster goes out for a stroll and runs into an anti-war demonstration. (That's what I mean by letting in daylight upon magic.)

I had once thought, rather simple-mindedly, that Wodehouse's downplaying of Wilde might have to do with a revulsion from homosexuality. And his few references to the subject in his non-fictional life—he called it "homosexualism"—are generally mildly disobliging. But I learned from McCrum that in the interwar years he used to thoroughly enjoy staying with a militantly gay cousin, usefully named Charles Le Strange, who owned an eccentric but well-appointed country house in East Anglia. The most Wodehouse could be induced to say of this relative was that he was "a weird bird." Elements of his sojourns at Hunstanton Hall were pressed into service for the innumerable country-house episodes that, Wodehouse later admitted, he relied on so greatly because any scene set under such a roof seemed somehow credible.

His staunchest admirer would be hard put to deny that Wodehouse wrote too much, but that's partly because he lived so long. And a biographer can't decently quarrel with that, even though the declining years offer less and less by way of incident and amusement, and less still by way of humorous genius. McCrum is one of those who esteem the "Uncle Fred" stories, which detail the wry adventures of Lord Ickenham. One can't quite allow this. The appeal is simply too broad; too general. If a volume of collected Wodehouse could be assembled, and could include no more than two full-length novels (The Code of the Woosters and Right Ho, Jeeves, the latter containing Gussie Fink-Nottle's prize-giving at Market Snodsbury Grammar School); perhaps a dozen of the more finished Jeeves and Bertie short stories (to include "The Great Sermon Handicap," "Jeeves and the Old School Chum," and "Jeeves and the Song of Songs"); and a selection of the Mulliner tales (both stories about the cat named Webster, the "Buck-U-Uppo" reminiscences, and the accounts of Archibald and Sacheverell), one would have a real corker that could never, ever die. As it is, one so often bumps into lost souls who claim to have "tried" Wodehouse and not got the joke. These are the unfortunates who in early and impressionable youth were handed a duff anthology by a well-meaning but mirthless aunt (or, admittedly, uncle).

Wodehouse never really went back to England after the Second World War; he had been semi-officially "cleared" of any charge of treason or collaboration, but the authorities, in a nasty bit of petty sadism, did not actually tell him they had in fact concluded that the evidence was insufficient. So he continued to churn out Edwardian-era plots from a home on Long Island, and to help set up the revoltingly named "Bide-A-Wee" home for stray and abandoned pets. This slushiness, like his sporadic interest in spiritualism and the occult, is of exactly the sort that he was best at lampooning—most especially in the Princess Diana—like person of Madeleine Bassett, a ghastly girl who thinks that the stars are God's daisy-chain. ("All rot, of course," Bertie says of this. "They're nothing of the sort.") But it may have come in useful in his frequent descriptions of an almost ectoplasmic Jeeves, as he "shimmered" into a room, or sometimes "filtered" or "floated" out.

Simile and metaphor provide so much of the energy of Wodehouse's narration: "He writhed like an electric fan"; "He wilted like a salted snail"; "Ice formed on the butler's upper slopes"; "There came a sound like that of Mr. G. K. Chesterton falling onto a sheet of tin"; "He looked like a sheep with a secret sorrow"; "A lifetime of lunches had caused his chest to slip down to the mezzanine floor"; "Aunt calling to aunt, like mastodons bellowing across the primeval swamp." I myself jumped like a pea on a hot shovel only twice during the reading of this biography: first when I read of Wodehouse's referring to his youthful case of "clap," and second when, in his letters from prison, he twice employed the word "toilet" for "lavatory." It's important that his votaries be able to think of him as virtually disembodied. In a great and noble defense of Wodehouse against the wartime calumny that was spread about him, Orwell observed that the complete omission of the sex joke was an astonishing sacrifice for a comic writer to make. But for Wodehouse it seems to have been no sacrifice at all. His marriage to Ethel, though it led to a great stepfatherly love for her daughter, was a business arrangement, with pets—preferably Pekes—standing in for offspring. The nearest approach to even an innuendo comes in Thank You, Jeeves, when Bertie finds his former fiancée, the American Pauline Stoker, in his bed, wearing his "heliotrope pyjamas with the old gold stripe." He phrases it thus: "The attitude of fellows towards finding girls in their bedroom shortly after midnight varies. Some like it. Some don't. I didn't."

One gasps at Wodehouse for going even as far as that. And given that he mentioned his "clap" only to his much more seasoned friend Guy Bolton, and late in life too, I prefer to believe that he was just trying to keep up, to appear to be one of the boys. He never found this easy, however. One of his editors, Christopher Maclehose, told me that he had once been to visit "Plum" on Long Island, and had found him shyly reading a copy of Alec Waugh's novel A Spy in the Family. This little effort was an extremely mild essay in erotic comedy, but Wodehouse found it profoundly shocking and asked Maclehose if everything in England had become so filthy in his absence. If not disgruntled, as Bertie Wooster once put it in another connection, he wasn't exactly gruntled either. But this is just as one might have hoped it to be.

His admirers will desert P. G. Wodehouse for his archaic Upstairs Downstairs settings on the same day that people discard Oscar Wilde for being too fond of the drawing room or discover Charles Dickens to be anachronistic for writing about stagecoaches in an age of steam. His attention to language, his near faultless ability to come up with names that are at once ludicrous and credible, and the intricacy of his plotting are imperishable. Unlike Wilde, though, he put his genius into his work, not his life.