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.
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.
Wodehouse started quickly with stories about schoolboys and soon enough gained success with them, but from the start he was ambitious. Writing from New York in 1909 to a fellow Englishman, he said: “I don’t want people here to know me as a writer of school-stories. I want to butt into the big league. It wouldn’t do me much good people saying I was better than Andrew Home when I want them to say I’m better than O. Henry.” It didn’t take long for people to start saying just that and much more, as by the mid-1920s Wodehouse had become, certainly in England, a household name, as he noted in a letter to his beloved stepdaughter, Leonora:
“A woman wrote to the Tatler, asking the editor to settle a bet by telling her which was Mrs Wodehouse and which Miss Wodehouse in that photo of us. The side Mummie has been sticking on ever since has been something awful, — only equalled by mine when a letter turned up the other day addressed to ‘P.G. Wodehouse, London.’ I am going to write to myself and address it ‘P.G. Wodehouse, England’ and see if it arrives. The next step will be to send one addressed simply ‘P.G. Wodehouse.’”
Obviously, he was tickled pink that just about everybody knew his name, but he seems never to have lost the modesty that somehow was second nature to him. Everywhere he turned he was a great success, especially in the musical theater, principally in New York and working with composers as brilliant as Jerome Kern and Cole Porter, not to mention the immortal George Gershwin. He came to love New York and eventually learned to tolerate Hollywood, though he often found it not “really fit for human habitation.”
His books, though, were at the center of his working life. He frequently complained of “a ghastly difficulty in getting plots” or, more accurately, twists on the basic plot of boy meets girl, girl unloads all her wiles on boy, boy somehow wiggles free — a theme that Wodehouse admitted to replaying again and again: “[J.B.] Priestley, however, was the worst [critic] of all, because he analysed me, blast him, and called attention to the thing I try to hush up, — viz, that I have only got one plot and produce it once a year with variations. I wish to goodness novelists wouldn’t review novels.”
Given that he was a genuinely nice man, Wodehouse surprises and delights us with the tartness of many of his literary judgments. Aldous Huxley: “I bought [‘Brave New World’] but simply can’t read it. Aren’t these stories of the future a bore. The whole point of Huxley is that he can write better about modern life than anybody else, so of course he goes and writes about the future.” Scott Fitzgerald: “ ‘The Great Gatsby’ was good, but his short stories, the things he made his name on, are AWFUL. . . . They are unabashed ‘magazine’ stories. Frightful!” Kingsley Amis: “I should imagine he is one of these clever young men whom I dislike so much. They very seldom amount to anything in the long run.” John O’Hara: “[He] has just got the literary award or whatever they call it for his book ‘Ten North Frederick,’ and it is simply pornography. . . . I’ll swear you couldn’t find anything dirtier in the streets of Paris.”
As for the critics: “I have an idea for a thoughtful thesis on the subject of Literary Criticism entitled ‘Back to Whiskers’ — my argument being that the soppiness and over-enthusiasm of modern literary criticism is due to the fact that critics are now clean shaven instead of wearing full-size whiskers, as in the brave old days when authors and critics used to come to blows. What we need is a return to the old foliage and acid reviews.”
Wodehouse kept right on writing straight through the most difficult time of his life, his internment by the Nazis during World War II, first in Berlin and then in Paris. It must have been terribly hard for him to maintain his morale, and there were moments when slippage was visible, not merely because of the war but because he could see his own world ending, as he wrote to a friend from Paris in June 1945:
“I have had a long spell of inaction since finishing a novel at the end of March. I suppose I shall get another plot some day, but nothing seems to stir as yet. . . . My trouble is that I already have five novels waiting to be published in England, so that anything I write now will presumably appear round about 1950, and I find it very hard to imagine what the world will be like then. I mean, it seems a waste of time to write about butlers and country houses if both are obsolete, as I suppose they will be. I can’t see what future there is for Blandings Castle, and I doubt if Bertie Wooster will be able to afford a personal attendant with the income tax at ten shillings in the pound. It looks to me as if the only one of my characters who will be able to carry on is Ukridge. His need for making a quick touch will be all the greater in an impoverished world, though I don’t see who is going to be in a position to lend him the ten bob he is always wanting.”
Well, of course Wodehouse was wrong as wrong can be. Bertie, Jeeves, Lord Emsworth, the Empress of Blandings and — of course! — Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton, fifth Earl of Ickenham, and all the rest of them are eternal. They are beyond time and place, in a universe all their own that will, I devoutly believe, continue into the unknown to bring readers not only delight but also the bracing reassurance that whatever the stupidities we humans commit, there are places in the universe that remain unclouded by them.
A Life in Letters
Edited by Sophie Ratcliffe
Norton. 602 pp. $35