Robert McCrum's examination of the life of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881-1975) is the seventh major Wodehouse biography. McCrum tries to distinguish his study from earlier ones by emphasizing the significance of Wodehouse's considerable theatrical work, by making suppositions about his relations with his wife, Ethel, a free spirit, and by drawing a more complete portrait of the darkest period of Wodehouse's life, his questionable behavior during his internment by the Germans during World War II. Often seen as a jovial man without a care in the world, Wodehouse was much more complex. McCrum weaves acute literary criticism into his narrative, making a strong case for the greatness of the creator of Jeeves, Bertie Wooster, Psmith, Ukridge, and Mr. Mulliner.
Wodehouse came from a family of colonial administrators whose values were encompassed “by near-feudal attitudes.” Young Pelham, called Plum, and his two older brothers were never close to their parents, especially their mother. When the boys were two, four, and six, Eleanor and Ernest Wodehouse deposited them with a nanny and spent three years in Hong Kong. Between the ages of three and fifteen, Wodehouse spent about six months with his parents. As an old man, he wrote that he and his brothers considered their mother a stranger. McCrum, who based some of his conclusions upon an interview with a child psychologist, sees this separation as central to the writer's solitary, self-sufficient nature and his ability to insulate himself from emotional distress. His unstable childhood led Wodehouse, never close to his brothers, to crave the certainty of daily routines and contributed to his unusual devotion to his craft.
McCrum traces the cold, remote parents in Wodehouse's fiction to this upbringing, unfortunately typical of the Victorian colonial class. Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, and Somerset Maugham had similar childhoods. The time the boy Plum spent with a variety of aunts and uncles is also reflected in his fiction, especially with the contrast between Bertie Wooster's sympathetic Aunt Dahlia and the fearsome Aunt Agatha.
Wodehouse began writing stories and poems when he was five and read all the Victorian children's classics during his formative years. His literary interests were encouraged at Dulwich, the boarding school he attended in suburban London. This time at Dulwich was the high point of Wodehouse's life, providing a security missing elsewhere. In many senses, Wodehouse remained frozen in time as a Dulwich boy, with the emotional age of his male protagonists arrested at fifteen. Wodehouse later observed, “Mentally, I seem not to have progressed a step since I was eighteen.”
Though Wodehouse's feelings toward his father were benign, Ernest Wodehouse's inexplicable behavior led to the major disappointment of his son's life in deciding that Plum, unlike his elder brothers, would not attend Oxford because the family could not afford to send three sons there. If he had gone, however, he might have followed his father's path into the Foreign Office of the civil service and not become a writer.
As it was, young Wodehouse began an immensely boring job with a branch of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, work that nevertheless inspired some of his early fiction about bumbling young men slaving away in offices. He was soon neglecting the bank for his freelance journalism, turning out eighty stories and articles while in its employ. Through a former Dulwich schoolmaster, Wodehouse was soon working for the daily newspaper the Globe and was making enough money to quit the bank. In 1903 alone, he published forty-seven items in his favorite publication, Punch.
Wodehouse created a distinctive, unsentimental London “where aristocrats chased actresses, where American money pursued British class, where bookmakers and barmaids mixed on equal terms with Cabinet ministers and newspaper editors, and where everyone read the Sporting Times.” The attitudes Wodehouse developed during this period, a contrast between fascination with the hurly-burly of the city and the peaceful calm of rural climes, solidified and rarely varied for the remainder of his more than sixty years as a writer.
Wodehouse liberated himself from his family in 1904 by moving to the United States for the first time. In New York, he wrote lyrics for several musicals. By connecting the words to the actions in the plays, he helped create, says McCrum, the modern musical comedy. Because he had so loved the theater as a schoolboy, he always considered his stage work much more glamorous and satisfying than his fiction. He contributed to fourteen productions from 1916 to 1919, including...
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