The Letters of P.G. Wodehouse

Edited by Frances Donaldson

James H. Heineman. 269 pp. $22.95

IN 1935 P.G. Wodehouse was 54 years old, already the author of over 50 books, and the lyricist for more than 40 musical comedies. He was shortly (in 1939) to receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford University and to be acclaimed by Hilaire Belloc "the best living writer of English." Both George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, who agreed on virtually nothing else, admired him deeply; Waugh referred to him as the Master and spoke of Wodehouse with a reverence he otherwise reserved only for the Catholic Church. At the same time, millions of ordinary readers of the Saturday Evening Post chuckled over his serials about Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, Blandings Castle and the idiots of the Drones Club. He was beyond doubt one of the most successful authors in the world.

But also one of the most hardworking and unassuming. This very same year Wodehouse (pronounced Woodhouse) wrote to his old schoolfriend William Townend: "Ethel {PGW's wife} has been after me for years to write a play all on my own, so I said I would. It's the most ghastly sweat. But it does teach one a tremendous lot about construction." Teach? Construction? As these selected letters show again and again, no one could know more about plot construction than Wodehouse, or about any other aspect of authorship. By comparison, Flaubert seems a mere dabbler, Henry James a casual dilettante. Wodehouse's entire life -- some 93 years -- was given over to thinking up funny stories, working out their plots with drum-major precision, and setting down perfectly cadenced sentences of epigrammatic brilliance. Of these last there is seemingly no end, though every Wodehouse addict has his favorites:

"In the evening of his life his uncle Frederick, Lord Ickenham, still retained, together with a juvenile waist-line, the bright enthusiasms and the fresh unspoiled mental outlook of a slightly inebriated undergraduate."

"Like so many substantial citizens of America, he had married young and kept on marrying, springing from blonde to blonde like the chamois of the Alps leaping from crag to crag."

"Myrtle Prosser was a woman of considerable but extremely severe beauty. She . . . suggested rather one of those engravings of the mistresses of Bourbon kings which make one feel that the monarchs who selected them must have been men of iron, impervious to fear, or else shortsighted."

Wodehouse's best comic effects require some build-up -- think of Gussie Fink-Nottle drunkenly presenting the school prizes in Right Ho, Jeeves -- but he was also a master of the quick jab.

"He had just about enough intelligence to open his mouth when he wanted to eat, but certainly no more."

"He groaned slightly and winced, like Prometheus watching his vulture dropping in for lunch."

"Gussie, a glutton for punishment, stared at himself in the mirror."

"He drank coffee with the air of a man who regretted it was not hemlock."

Such random nuggets make clear why Evelyn Waugh marveled at Wodehouse's ability to come up with at least three fresh similes per page. Waugh, by the way, especially approved the phrase about "the acrid smell of burnt poetry."

Not surprisingly, these letters display only a glimmer of this wit, though Wodehouse can be sharp with the apercu: "It's odd how soon one comes to look on every minute as wasted that is given to earning one's salary." In general, though, he was too much the professional to waste good material on friends. Instead, his correspondence focuses obsessively on the business and mechanics of his profession. Frances Donaldson, Wodehouse's authorized biographer, organizes the letters according to subject ("Work," "Dogs," "Hollywood"), but this hardly matters: Wodehouse's small talk nearly always turns into shoptalk. In writing to his stepdaughter Leonora he asks if she can give him "useful details" about her girls' school for a Jeeves story. He complains to his favored correspondents -- his cronies Townend and Guy Bolton, both writers -- that he can't think of any new plots. He reflects on the benefits and disadvantages of first-person narration. He reviews his material constantly, looking for ways to strengthen the "scenarios," speed up the action, make everything funnier. For anyone interested in how a writer thinks and works The Letters of P.G. Wodehouse deserves a place on the shelf near Henry James's notebooks, Trollope's autobiography and Flaubert's letters.

"I believe the only way a writer can keep himself up to the mark," explains this genial teacher, "is by examining each story quite coldly before he starts writing it and asking himself if it is all right as a story. I mean, once you start saying to yourself, 'This is a pretty weak plot as it stands, but I'm such a hell of a writer that my magic touch will make it all right,' I believe you're done. . . ."

"Another thing is, what you want to put your stuff over is Action . . . The more I write the more I an convinced that the only way to write a popular story is to split it up into scenes, and have as little stuff in between the scenes as possible. . . ."

"I wrote a short story in 1947 for the Cosmopolitan. Subsequently writing a Jeeves novel, I needed what we call in the tayarter a block comedy scene, so I took out the middle part of the short story and bunged it into the book. A month or so ago I thought up a new middle and sold the new-middle story with the old beginning and end in England. And I have now devised a new beginning and end for the new-middle story and sold it over here {in the United States}. Quite a feat, don't you think?"

By doing nothing but writing -- in France, Hollywood and New York, almost anywhere but England, which in his imagination remained unchangingly Edwardian -- Wodehouse settled into a life of sunny routine, eclipsed temporarily only by the death of Leonora in her early forties and by the brouhaha attending his World War II broadcasts. Interned by the Germans in 1942, Wodehouse quite innocently agreed to give five humorous radio talks about his life in a prison camp. He intended them simply as entertainment, directed toward his American readers, but they were used as German propaganda and wildly misinterpreted in Britain. The easy-going Wodehouse found himself vilified, his books withdrawn from libraries, his name anathema for quite some time, despite a stirring defense by George Orwell. Gradually, he came to realize that he had acted like one of his own silly-ass heroes, but the damage had been done: This archetypally English humorist lived his last 30 years on Long Island and never returned to the land of Wooster and Jeeves, not even in 1975 when he learned he had been knighted. By then, of course, Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was 93. Within a few months he was dead. HE DIED in the middle of a novel -- published as Sunset at Blandings -- with nearly a hundred other books to his credit. Probably none but the most fervent fan has read every one. Indeed, I wonder how much they are read at all these days. Wodehouse aimed to be an entertainer, bowed to editorial judgment as meekly as any novice, and himself admired pros of prose like Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner and Henry Slessar (who wrote his beloved "Edge of Night" soap opera). Some popular writers -- Dumas, Stevenson, Conan Doyle, Kipling -- find that later generations transform their books into children's classics. Wodehouse, by contrast, seems to have lost his general audience and become mainly a cult author savored by connoisseurs for his prose artistry. Waugh predicted that this might happen -- and welcomed it, in his typically snooty way.

For these readers, Wodehouse intuitively realized that literature is simply a construct of language; there is naturally no relation between his books and any reality, historic or otherwise. For all the author's attention to plot and storyline, one hardly cares what happens to his young men in spats, whether newt-fancier Gussie Fink-Nottle marries Madeline Bassett or whether the Empress of Blandings wins a silver medal in the Fat Pig division of the Shropshire Agricultural Show. What finally matters are those delicious sentences, with their zingy mix of slang and learned allusion: Lord Ickenham, on his way to take a bath, goes "armed with his great sponge Joyeuse." J.B. Priestley, of all people, was right: Wodehouse "has raised speech into a kind of wild poetry of the absurd."

Still, "Plum" Wodehouse would regret this view of his work. He was slightly perplexed by all this Master and "Angelic Doctor" stuff; he thought himself a damn good comic storyteller. After all his books constantly tease intellectuals, aesthetes and writers. Who can forget the poetic bruiser Ricky Gilpin or Rosie M. Banks, esteemed authoress of "Mervyn Keene, Clubman?"

I think Wodehouse might have a wider audience again, but for the sheer volume of his work: Casual readers simply don't know where to begin. The best advice is to start with his best work: among the novels, Leave it to Psmith (1923), Right Ho, Jeeves (1934, and recently televised as the last two episodes in Masterpiece Theater's "Jeeves and Wooster" series) or Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939). Several anthologies gather the best of the short stories, but everyone's favorites include the Mulliner tall tales "Strychnine in the Soup" and "Mulliner's Buck-U-Uppo"; the Drones stories "Tried in the Furnace" "Fate" and "Uncle Fred Flits By"; the Lord Emsworth favorite "Pig Hoo-o-o-o-ey"; and that Jeeves masterpiece, "The Great Sermon Handicap."

Of course, all these are utterly farcical and improbable tales of stolen heirlooms, mistaken identities and love's cross currents. Mere piffle. But through their inimitable prose these silly, silly stories nonetheless bestow a small but not insignificant gift on anyone who reads them: pure unclouded happiness.

Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for Book World.