Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 751
Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was born in Guildford, Surrey, on October 15, 1881, the third of four sons born to Henry Ernest and Eleanor Deane Wodehouse. Wodehouse’s father was a member of the English civil service and spent most of his working years in Hong Kong; indeed, it was a mere chance that Wodehouse was not born in Hong Kong. Whether it was miscalculation or the event was premature, his birth occurred during one of his mother’s rare and rather brief visits to England.
Wodehouse was reared away from his parents; they were, he often remarked, like distant aunts and uncles rather than parents. Wodehouse entered Dulwich College at the age of twelve and remained there for the next six years. The school was not prominent in the sense that Harrow and Eton were prominent; it was simply a good middle-class school. The headmaster was the most impressive figure, and he may have served as the model for Wooster’s nemesis, the Reverend Aubrey Upjohn. The headmaster was not impressed with his student; he once wrote to Wodehouse’s parents: “He has the most distorted ideas about wit and humour.One is obliged to like him in spite of his vagaries.” The vagaries, apart from the student’s drawing stick figures in his classical texts, are unrecorded. In those final years at Dulwich, Wodehouse found his vocation. He was appointed editor of the school paper and sold his first story to a boys’ weekly, The Public School Magazine. The story won first prize for fiction in that year.
Following graduation in 1900, Wodehouse went to work for the London branch of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. His work there was not a complete disaster for the banking industry, but very nearly so. Wodehouse was no good at checks and balances and served only as an unpleasant distraction for those who were. At night, he continued to write fiction and reviews or plays and was given a position at the newspaper The Globe in 1902, the year the first of his many novels was published. The respected humor magazine Punch accepted an article from him the next year, and a second novel was also published in 1903. From that time, Wodehouse averaged more than a novel, several short stories, and either a play or musical a year.
In 1914, Wodehouse married Ethel Rowley, a widow with one child. The marriage was a happy one, and the author frequently expressed his gratitude to his wife for the support she gave to his work. For the Wodehouse reader, however, the following year had a much greater significance: Something New, the first of the Blandings novels, was published. A few years later, the short-story collection My Man Jeeves (1919) appeared, the first of the Jeeves and Wooster saga.
Novels and stories appeared with an unfailing regularity, and in the next two decades, Wodehouse became an acknowledged master. In 1939, Oxford paid tribute to his greatness by conferring on him the honorary doctorate of letters (D.Litt.). The doctorate meant that Jeeves, Wooster, Emsworth, and the rest were accepted as part of the heritage of English literature. The Times of London supported the Oxford gesture, noting that the praise given to Wodehouse the stylist was especially apt: “Style goes a long way in Oxford; indeed the purity of Mr. Wodehouse’s style was singled out for particular praise in the Public Orator’s happy Horatian summing up of Mr. Wodehouse’s qualities and achievements.”
Wodehouse and his wife had lived in France throughout much of the 1930’s, and though war with Germany was believed imminent, Wodehouse returned to France after he received the doctorate at Oxford. In 1940, he was taken prisoner by the Germans. In various prison camps, he made a series of broadcasts over German radio that were interpreted as a form of collaboration with the enemy. Wodehouse was innocent of all the charges, but it was perhaps his innocence, the vital ingredient in most of his heroes, that almost undid him. The closest Wodehouse came to collaboration was his remark to the effect that he was not unhappy in prison, for he was able to continue his work. One scholar has called that broadcast “clearly indiscreet,” but those who have read the Wodehouse letters know that he scarcely thought about anything else aside from his work.
After his release, Wodehouse eventually returned to the United States, where he took permanent residence; he became an American citizen in 1955. In 1973 he was knighted, and he died in 1975 at the age of ninety-four.
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