WRITING to a friend in May of 1945, P. G. Wodehouse asked "What the devil does one write about these days if one is a specialist on country houses and butlers, both of which have ceased to exist?"
Living in exile in France, still hounded by the home front warriors who felt that his broadcasts from a German internment camp were acts of calculated villainy, he forgot for a moment that the world of earls and butlers moving in beautifully complex sarabandes through the halls of Blandings and other castles had never existed in the first place. It was for this reason that his books had sold and were to sell many millions of copies.
In this the year of Wodehouse's centenary, books about him are flowing out of the presses almost as rapidly as did his own output, and if none of them, including this exceptionally detailed work by Frances Donaldson, is as revealing as we might hope, it is nobody's fault but Wodehouse's because he was so intensely private a person that he once sought a ground floor flat so he wouldn't have to think of things to say to the elevator man.
Through acquaintance with his stepdaughter, Leonora, Donaldson saw a great deal of Wodehouse in her girlhood and she has been allowed to consult previously unavailable letters and papers of which she has made extensive use.
No one who loves the Wodehouse oeuvre should miss reading her biography and yet the picture that emerges from this and other studies is of a terribly ordinary sort of fellow whose school days appear to have been the happiest of his life and who, on this account, often acted and talked like a character out of The Boys' Own Paper.
"One is inclined to like him in spite of his vagaries," wrote his public school headmaster at the end of a rather negative report card in which it is remarked that Wodehouse "has the most distorted ideas about wit and humour."
His essential likeableness and, to use an old-fashioned word, decency, come breathing out of Donaldson's pages like a whiff of good pipe smoke mixed with country air. It was, however, his unthinking good nature which involved him in the great brouhaha which led many of his countrymen to call him traitor. Looking back on the whole business, the word that comes to mind is silliness. It was silly of Wodehouse to be amusing about his World War II internment hardships in a series of recorded talks to America. It was silly to act as William Connor did on the BBC, to speak as if Wodehouse had taken sides with the Germans and dishonored those English fellow prisoners for whom, in Connors' silly phrase, "Barbed wire was their pillow."
The controversy continued for years but it is interesting to note that by 1944 while Wodehouse was still under an official cloud, the sales of his books began to leap upwards again, and that in the course of time the friendly fellow nicknamed Plum insisted on a lunch with Connor in which, Wodehouse reports, they "got along together like a couple of sailors on shore leave."
David Jasen, a leading Wodehouse expert, came as close as anyone to the secret of this peculiar man when he said that he had to like everyone.
Not everyone, of course, had to like him, and Sean O'Casey spoke for the serious-minded when he called Wodehouse "the performing flea of English literature," a remark characteristically taken by the flea in question as a compliment.
Hilaire Belloc spoke for the intemperate idolaters when he called him "the best living writer of English."
I doubt the best living writer of English would have nearly so many readers as Wodehouse attracted, and I suggest that the thing which annoyed the puritans was the continual unthinking happiness which runs through all his books. (An editor, asking me to write a preface to a volume of newly discovered Wodehouse ephemera, said that I must mix an expos,e of the shallowness and artificiality of Wodehouse's world and its values with some useful commercial praise. I was unable to mix the vinegar and oil.)
Nobody except Beach, the Blandings butler, or Jeeves the gentleman's gentleman, ever does any real work and crooks go unpunished except by the loss of their loot. The sun is always shining when the hero sets out in his two- seater to go to some agreeable place and after a little transitory cloudiness it is shining on the last page and the kiss that unites another perfect pair. Like Anthony Trollope, whom he resembles in his hard-headed approach to writing as a trade and in his ability to take you completely into the world of his choice, Wodehouse is a wonderful tonic for the troubled. When one considers the numbers of the troubled, one can understand his continuing popularity and the irritation of those who feel that books about people like Bertie Wooster Do Not Come to Grips With Things As They Are.
Wodehouse wrote many musical comedy lyrics of which perhaps the most famous is "Just My Bill" which Helen Morgan sang in Showboat. Bill whose "form and face, his manly grace, are not the sort that you would find in a statue," was a sort of P. G. Wodehouse without the genius. If Frances Donaldson cannot make him dashing, she makes him as inexplicably lovable as Bill and make us want to pick up again one of those books like Much Obliged, Jeeves which begin "As I slid into my chair at the breakfast table and started to deal with the toothsome eggs and bacon which Jeeves had given of his plenty, I was conscious of a strange exhilaration, if I've got the word right."