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A writer of popular fiction, Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse1 was one of the most prolific authors ever. His first book, The Pothunters, being published in 1902, he enjoyed a long and successful career up to his death in 1975. He could claim full or part-authorship of the lyrics and/or books of 16 plays and musicals (mostly collaborations with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton)2, screenplays, an estimated 300 short stories, essays and 96 novels.
Born in Guildford, England on 15 October, 1881, he was educated at Dulwich College, worked for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, moved to the USA in 1909 - gaining citizenship in 1955 - and married Ethel Newton. Wodehouse never had children of his own, but he did adopt Ethel's child, Leonora, as his step-daughter.
A man of simple tastes and pleasures, Wodehouse seemed happiest when working, seated before his trusty typewriter (sometimes re-writing sentences up to 10 times) with a pipe full of fresh tobacco in his mouth and a small furry animal on his lap. In correspondence3 with friends, he had two favourite topics: writing and dogs, particularly the numerous Wodehouse pekes over the years.
He read an awful lot - he particularly admired Rudyard Kipling, Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare. Later in life, he complained of never being able to find much to read, and often watched television instead, particularly enjoying The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Not surprisingly, his first given name was often shortened to the nickname 'Plum' or 'Plummie' by his friends and family.
Though Wodehouse began his career writing poems for magazines like Punch and adventure stories for English school-boys, and continued for years to write whatever he thought would sell, he eventually settled on and perfected a wonderfully frothy and particularly English4 kind of light romantic farce - as he put it, 'musical comedy without the music'.
In sharp contrast to the 20th Century trend in popular culture to make everything harder, grittier and ever more violent and 'realistic', Wodehouse's stories avoid strict realism. Instead, he created for his readers a world where no one really suffers, the sun rarely fails to shine, and the conflicts necessary to drive the plot rarely grow more serious than a courtship temporarily gone awry, or a dispute between two gentlemen over the suitability of a white dinner jacket with brass buttons5. Hugh Laurie said that when he was informed that life in the 1920s wasn't really like this, it was like being told Father Christmas doesn't exist.
Though Wodehouse constantly poked fun at a wide range of targets - from the English class system and the ivory tower of academe to institutionalised religion - his satire was of the sweetest and gentlest variety possible. In fact, it is this studied innocence that arguably provides his detractors with their only real ammunition.
It is worth pointing out that, despite Wodehouse's repeated intention only to write entertainment for entertainment's sake, his work has long been revered for its richness of language. Any one of Wodehouse's stories contains an astonishing variety of vocabulary, a capacity for literary allusion to satisfy the most intellectual of tastes, a wealth of witty dialogue, and an unsurpassed talent for simile. He has many fans in the loftiest reaches of literary study6, and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Oxford University in 1939.
Wodehouse is probably best known as the creator of Jeeves: the unfailing, unflappable valet and 'gentleman's gentleman' to Bertie Wooster, a young man of independent means and somewhat questionable intellect. These characters have spawned two movies, two television series (The World of Wooster, from the 1960s, and Jeeves & Wooster, from 1990s, starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry), an unsuccsessful stage musical and a search engine.
Also very popular are the stories of Blandings Castle, involving the scatter-brained Lord Emsworth, his prized pig the Empress of Blandings, his brother Galahad and his large number of sisters. Stories of Blandings Castle have been adapted into a silent film, a TV mini-series, a radio series and a made-for-television movie starring Peter O'Toole.
Other prominent characters appearing in the Wodehouse canon include:
- Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, a rather shady yet loveable character.
- Mr Mulliner, a man who, while drinking hot Scotches with lemon in the Angler's Rest, tells stories of his relatives.
- The Oldest Member, who tells golf7-related stories.
- Psmith, who starred in some of Wodehouse's greatest works, but the 'P' is silent.
- And an endless host of fascinating young women and hopelessly smitten young men8; along with the occasional threatening elder aunt whose bark is invariably worse than her bite.
Prison Camp and the German Broadcast Controversy
During World War II Wodehouse spent nearly a year in German prison camps, or Ilags. Despite being imprisoned, all this time didn't go to waste: he later said it was 'really great fun' and he kept a diary, 'The Camp Note Book', wrote Money in the Bank, the first book he wrote by hand, and read the complete works of William Shakespeare.
He then did weekly radio broadcasts to America from a suite at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin, Germany, telling about his time at camp. Though the broadcasts were apolitical and free of propaganda, he was accused of betraying England and being a Nazi sympathiser. It is hard to see any basis for these accusations. Nevertheless, he was vilified by many, though defended by some fellow writers including George Orwell. Wodehouse then lived in Paris for a while before moving back to America, never to return to Europe again.
Wodehouse was knighted in 1975. He died shortly afterwards in Long Island on 14 February of the same year, at the age of 93. He said that he had no ambitions left now he was knighted and honoured by a wax figure at Madame Tussaud's.
Wodehouse kept writing until he died, often working in his hospital bed. At the time of his final illness, he was working on Sunset at Blandings, which was published in 1977 in its incomplete form, with an introduction by Douglas Adams.
- Performing Flea and Over Seventy (Wodehouse's autobiographies)
- Right Ho, Jeeves, The Inimitable Jeeves and Carry on, Jeeves
- Uncle Fred in the Springtime, Galahad at Blandings
- Psmith in the City, Leave it to Psmith, Psmith Journalist
- The Small Bachelor
- Big Money
- Piccadilly Jim
- Sam the Sudden
- Bill the Conqueror
- The Most of PG Wodehouse (collection of short stories and the novel Quick Service)
Books to avoid:
- The Coming of Bill
- The Girl in Blue