Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 621

P. G. Wodehouse was born on October 15, 1881, in Hong Kong, where his father was stationed as a member of the British civil service. He was sent to England along with his older brothers for his schooling in 1884. He attended Elizabeth College and Malvern House, a naval preparatory school. At the age of 12, he began his most important educational experience at Dulwich College. His six years at Dulwich were a major influence on his life and work. His first payment for writing came during his last year there when one of his essays was published in the Public School Magazine.

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Wodehouse knew early that he wanted to be a writer, but his father did not believe that writing was a sensible occupation. He was forced to become a bank clerk at the London branch of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. However, he wrote during the evening and sold 80 stories and articles while he worked at the bank. Ultimately, he quit working there and became a journalist for The Globe in 1903, first writing and then editing the ‘‘By the Way’’ column. In 1904, he made the first of frequent visits to the United States and immediately fell in love with American culture. On one of his visits, he met the widow who would become his wife, Ethel Newton Rowley. They were married on September 30, 1914.

Wodehouse began writing lyrics for the musical stage in 1904. In1906, his first collaboration with Jerome Kern, The Beauty of Bath, was produced for the Aldwych Theatre. Kern introduced Wodehouse to Guy Bolton in 1906. The three men worked together to revolutionize the musical comedy. Wodehouse was a gifted lyricist with a breezy wit and he teamed with Bolton and Kern to write several hit plays, including Have a Heart (1917) and Oh, Lady! Lady! (1918). One of their plays, Leave it to Jane (1917) had a successful revival Off- Broadway in the early 1970s. Wodehouse also worked periodically in Hollywood during the 1930s, making what he believed was an outrageous amount of $2,000 per week as a script doctor for Samuel Goldwyn. However, he experienced greater success with his plays and his fiction. The theater had a tremendous influence on his fiction; he once commented that his books were musical comedies without the music.

Wodehouse’s fiction was popular because of the absurd yet complex plots and zany characters. His stories were formulaic, but his formula allowed for a wide variety of situations and characters. His tales of Mr. Mulliner, Blandings Castle, and Jeeves and Wooster shared many of the same plot elements: silly young men seeking or avoiding marriage, mistaken identities, the purloining of some object by successive characters, etc. Many of the characters cross over from one story or novel to another, and the characters make frequent references to events that take place in other stories or novels. Another reason Wodehouse’s formula was successful was his masterful command of the English language. He used metaphors, puns, slang, and literary references in his fiction to great effect.

In 1940, Wodehouse was captured by the Germans while living in France and spent much of the war interned in Berlin. He unwisely made a series of radiobroadcasts sponsored by the Germans from Berlin to America in 1941. Although the broadcasts subtly ridiculed the Germans, many right-wing publications in England branded him a traitor. Writers such as George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, however, defended Wodehouse by pointing out that he was politically naive. Wodehouse did not realize that the broadcasts were valuable propaganda for the Germans. Wodehouse, who dearly loved England, was deeply wounded by the charges and ended up emigrating to the United States, becoming a citizen in 1955. The scandal ultimately blew over, and Wodehouse, to his great satisfaction, was knighted shortly before his death in 1975.

Biography

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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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