Sophie Ratcliffe is quick to point out, in her thoughtful and informative introduction to this collection of P.G. Wodehouse’s correspondence, that his letters tend to be of a “workaday nature,” at times even “downright ordinary.” She writes: “While the letters are consistently interesting for the detail they contain and the light they shed upon his times, they display only on occasions the extraordinary stylistic elan that one finds in his fiction.” Mostly they were “written at speed,” not merely because that’s par for the course for just about all private correspondence, but because Wodehouse, a humble and courteous man, answered all his mail and therefore amassed a huge library of missives, of which this generous selection is more a sample than a definitive edition.
But what a delicious sample it is! Ratcliffe, who tutors in English at Christ Church, Oxford, is right to warn us that Wodehouse’s letters often are casual — as opposed, say, to the more self-conscious ones of Henry James or Noel Coward. But the man comes shining through in them, revealing everything from his incredibly professional writing habits to his deep love of animals (dogs most particularly) to his opinions about other writers. Given that he was the great comic novelist of the 20th century, if not of all eternity, it may come as a surprise to some readers that he was a passionately literary man who told one friend that “all one needs in life is books” and whose life truly revolved around them.
(W.W. Norton) - ’P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters’ by P. G. Wodehouse and Sophie Ratcliffe
Unlike many of Wodehouse’s admirers, I came to him late in life, well into my 60s, impelled by my friend and colleague Michael Dirda. But in a half-dozen years I have become as ardent, if scarcely as well informed, as any Wodehouse maniac. I treasure his greatest novels — “Right Ho, Jeeves,” “Joy in the Morning,” “Quick Service,” “Blandings Castle” and the immortal “Uncle Fred in the Springtime,” to name but five, not to mention the transcendent (long) short story “The Crime Wave at Blandings” — and re-read them over and over again. I cherish C. Northcote Parkinson’s “Jeeves: A Gentleman’s Personal Gentleman” and Robert McCrum’s “Wodehouse: A Life” and thus am thrilled — no other word will do — to add this selection of letters to their ranks.
The first letter herein published was written in the summer of 1899, when Wodehouse was 17 years old and getting close to the end of what he later remembered as “six years of unbroken bliss” at Dulwich, the school for boys where so many of his ideas, attitudes and beliefs took root. The last was written in February 1975, only days before his death. In the intervening three-quarters of a century, we see Wodehouse steadily maturing, his craft deepening, his fame spreading and his circle of friends widening, but its inner core remaining constant to the end. Readers who know McCrum’s biography can fill in most of the details, but “Wodehouse: A Life in Letters” gives us the story in his own words — and far more comprehensively than any previous volume of letters — because Ratcliffe has tracked down many that went unpublished.