P. G. Wodehouse 1881–-1975
(Born Pelham Grenville Wodehouse) English-born American novelist, short story writer, memoirist, lyricist, screenwriter, playwright, and journalist.
Wodehouse is widely recognized as one of the foremost humorists and prose stylists of the twentieth century. His elaborate, farcical stories and novels are set most often in an upper-class, pseudo-Edwardian world of clubmen and country estates and present the comic adventures of characters drawn from the stock-types of English and American musical comedy. In particular, his most beloved characters, Bertie Wooster and his resourceful valet, Jeeves, have been ranked with the outstanding comic duos in literature. Wodehouse's accomplishments have earned nearly universal admiration from critics, including such writers as George Orwell, Dorothy Parker, Hilaire Belloc, and Sinclair Lewis.
Born in Guildford, Surrey on October 15, 1881, Wodehouse spent two years of his early childhood in Hong Kong, where his father served as a magistrate. He was then sent back to England with his two older brothers to pursue his education. Short, infrequent visits by his parents, coupled with all he suffered under the strictures of various temporary guardians and eccentric schoolmistresses, shaped Wodehouse's increasingly introverted and bookish nature, and he found an outlet for his energies and interests in sports and creative writing. In 1900 he began training in London for a career in banking. During the next two years, he published some eighty items in various boys' magazines. By 1902 he had become a full-time writer, having already begun serializing his first novel, The Pothunters, in Public School Magazine and contributing to an anonymous humor column in the London Globe. In 1904 Wodehouse traveled to the United States and began his career as a musical-comedy lyricist, which he conducted while continuing to produce fiction.
By 1914 Wodehouse had married and settled in New York where he began selling stories and serialized novels to major American magazines. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, he published an astonishing number of stories and novels, while finding time to write musical-comedy lyrics and plays and to work as a Hollywood screenwriter, becoming a very wealthy man in the process. While in England in 1939, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters by Oxford University. The following year the Wodehouses were in Le Touquet, France, where they had taken a villa, when that nation was overrun by the advancing German army, and they were placed under arrest. Under German occupation, all the male residents of Touquet, Wodehouse included, were collected and transported to a series of internment camps. After eleven months, because of his age (he was almost sixty) and pressure applied for his release by readers in the then-neutral United States, Wodehouse was taken to Berlin, where he was joined by his wife. There they were assigned a hotel suite and, though kept under close observation by their captors, lived fairly comfortably. Soon afterward, several representatives from America convinced Wodehouse to deliver a series of radio broadcasts to the United States, to assure his audience there of his well-being and tell of his recent camp experiences. A series of five radio talks were taped, approved by government censors, and broadcast to the United States. Wodehouse's light-hearted but highly revealing portrait of life as an internee, subjected to his German captors' stupidity and inefficiency, was welcomed in America. Yet the talks were also heard in war-torn Britain, a nation undergoing daily privations and holding out under nightly bombing raids by the Nazi air force. In his native country Wodehouse was viewed as a traitor, for there the law deemed it a treasonous act for a British subject to broadcast over enemy facilities for any reason during wartime. Yet he was ably defended in print by a number of prominent people—notably, by George Orwell.
Wodehouse was eventually cleared by British intelligence authorities at the war's end. After his release by Allied investigators, he and his wife moved back to the United States, and he became a citizen in 1955. Wodehouse continued to write prodigiously, publishing an average of a novel every year for the rest of his life, not counting numerous short stories and autobiographical works. In America Wodehouse's popularity soared to its high prewar level, with British enthusiasm rising to match it by the 1960s. In recognition of the author's achievement, the Queen named him Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in January of 1975. Six weeks later, while in the hospital for treatment of a minor skin rash and while working on a novel (published posthumously in 1977 as Sunset at Blandings), Wodehouse died at age ninety-three.
Wodehouse was a prolific writer who composed song lyrics, novels, and short fiction. While he is renowned for his high level of skill in all these genres, many critics consider him to be at his finest in his short stories; these concern the improbable activities of roughly seven major characters or groupings of characters. One of these is Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, a lazy, get-quick-rich artist. A few steps up the social scale stands another major Wodehouse character, Mr. Mulliner. A fisherman given to stretching the truth to a greater extent than most, he occupies the bar-parlor of the Angler's Rest, where he regales awed listeners with preposterous tales of derring-do performed by his innumerable relatives. Another sportsman, a retired golfer known as the Oldest Member, narrates Wodehouse's acclaimed golf stories. Of roughly the same age as the elderly Oldest Member is one of the Wodehouse's most beloved characters, Clarence, ninth Earl of Emsworth, the dithering lord of Blandings Castle. A man who wants only to be left in peace to potter about, tend his garden, and care for his prize-winning pig, Lord Emsworth is beset on all sides by domineering sisters, an overly efficient personal secretary, a volatile gardener, and a vapid son known to the world as a dog-biscuit tycoon. Another peer, Frederick Cornwallis Twistleton, Earl of Ickenham (better known as Uncle Fred), appears in several novels and in a story.
Wodehouse's best-known collection of characters comprise the Drone Club, a group of unmarried, upper-class young idlers who may be found typically at the racetrack, sponging loans off each other, spending rainy afternoons at the Club tossing playing cards into a top hat, or falling in love, always with comic results. Most the stories that feature members of the Drones are collected in the 1936 volume of short stories, Young Men in Spats. To many critics, one of the Drones stands above all the others as Wodehouse's greatest creation: Bertie Wooster. He narrates stories of the trials of his life in a hilariously slangy fashion, revealing, despite protestations to the contrary, his utter dependence upon his patient “gentleman's personal gentlemen,” Jeeves, to extricate him time and again from his troubles. Bertie and Jeeves have been compared with the most famous character-duos in literary history.
The devices used by Wodehouse in his fiction have been explored and catalogued by several critics, notably linguist Robert A. Hall, Jr. in his The Comic Style of P. G. Wodehouse. Hall has identified and documented such workings as inventive word formations, transferred epithets, and comic misunderstandings among characters arising from lexicographic or syntactic confusion, among many others. Yet most critics and readers alike agree that critiquing Wodehouse's humor is, as Punch put it, like taking a spade to a soufflé. The majority of commentators have been content simply to applaud his accomplishment. A few commentators have posited the existence of satiric intent in Wodehouse's work while others have suggested the polar opposite: that he was simply an adoring chronicler of an outmoded and cruel class system. A few reviewers have found his comedy not at all humorous. Yet most critics and readers agree with Auberon Waugh, that Wodehouse created “a world of gentleness and simplicity where everything solemn or threatening is seen, in the last analysis, to be hopelessly funny.”