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A Week to Remember: P. G. Wodehouse

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
P. G. Wodehouse with Jeeves book covers

P. G. Wodehouse was born on October 15, 1881. The English humorist had an unusually long and prolific career, averaging a novel a year for more than 70 years. His writing is marked by a lively wit, a gift for unexpected similes, and the skill to find infinite variations on characters and situations that might seem to be limited in scope. His best-known characters are the hapless aristocrat Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, who is perpetually rescuing Bertie from awkward situations.

Wodehouse was born in the British colony of Hong Kong, where his father was a magistrate. He lived there for two years and was then sent to England with his two older brothers to be raised by a nanny. This was a fairly common arrangement at the time for children of civil servants in the colonies. At the age of ten, Wodehouse was sent to a prep school dedicated to preparing students for the Royal Navy; his poor eyesight disqualified him from possible military service, and three years later, he transferred to Dulwich College, where he finished his education.

Wodehouse was unable to attend university because of family financial problems and took a position at a London bank. He hated the job and began writing at night. His essays and articles quickly became popular, and he published more than 80 pieces in a variety of magazines and newspapers during his two years at the bank. Eventually, Wodehouse was able to support himself writing a regular column for the newspaper The Globe, and he published his first novel in 1902. The Pothunters (e-book | print) was a story of boys at boarding school.

In 1904, Wodehouse began a second writing career, in musical theater. He began as a lyricist, usually called on to write topical songs. If the political or cultural references in a long-running show were getting a bit stale, or if the songs in an American show needed some cultural translation for English audiences, Wodehouse could be counted on to touch them up.

Because his specialty was the current and the topical, few of his songs are performed today, but he worked in musicals for about thirty years. During the last decade of that time, he was principally writing not songs, but the book—that is, the story and the script—for musicals; with his writing partner Guy Bolton, Wodehouse played an important role in the development of the integrated musical, in which the songs were directly related to the story and the characters.

In 1915, Wodehouse wrote “Extricating Young Gussie,” the first story to feature his best-known characters, Jeeves & Wooster. It can be found in the collection The Man With Two Left Feet (e-book | e-audio | print). They were relatively minor characters in this story, but by their next appearance, they had taken center stage. Wodehouse wrote about 40 Jeeves & Wooster short stories, gathered in The World of Jeeves (print); they also appeared in eleven novels between 1934 and 1974, beginning with Thank You Jeeves (e-book | e-audio | print | audio).

3 book covers by Wodehouse

Jeeves and Wooster weren’t Wodehouse’s only recurring characters. Mr. Mulliner (e-audio | print) tells tall tales at the local pub in about 40 short stories; The Oldest Member (e-book | e-audio | print) is somewhat similar, but his stories center on golf. Stanley Ukridge (e-book | e-audio | print | audio) is a scheming opportunist whose plans inevitably backfire, and Psmith (e-book | e-audio | print) is a suave dandy, able to talk his way out of the most embarrassing moments.

By the late 1920s, Wodehouse was traveling frequently between London and New York, writing and working on theater projects in both cities. In 1929, he made it to the west coast, signing a one-year contract with MGM. The studio didn’t make much use of him and didn’t renew his contract. Wodehouse didn’t think much of the experience and gave an unusually frank interview to the Los Angeles Times in which he grumbled about the waste and inefficiency of the Hollywood process.

The frequent travel between the United Kingdom and the United States led to both countries trying to tax Wodehouse as a resident, and in the early 1930s, he moved to France to avoid the tax collectors of both countries. He returned to England in 1939 to receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford University; that was his last visit to his homeland.

In 1940, the German army occupied Le Touquet, the French village where Wodehouse lived. He was taken prisoner and later transferred to a German prison. Interned civilian prisoners were generally released from prison when they turned 60, but the Germans released Wodehouse a few months early, transferring him to a Berlin hotel, where he lived at his own expense.

In the summer of 1941, Wodehouse was persuaded—the circumstances remain somewhat unclear—to record a series of five radio programs, which were broadcast in the United States by CBS Radio. The programs, called “How to Be an Internee Without Previous Training,” were collections of humorous stories about his time as a German prisoner. When the Germans later broadcast them to England as propaganda, Wodehouse was denounced as a traitor.

After the war, Wodehouse returned to France, where he was interviewed by British intelligence agents. They determined that his broadcasts were thoughtless and foolish, but that his actions did not merit prosecution. Still, Wodehouse feared the consequences if he ever returned to England, and when he was given permission to leave France in 1946, he moved to the United States. He lived there for the rest of his life, becoming a US citizen in 1955.

In 1965, British authorities informed Wodehouse that he was under no risk of prosecution, but he was in his 80s and felt too old to make the trip. In the 1975 New Year Honours list, Wodehouse was made a Knight Commander of the British Empire, officially becoming Sir P. G. Wodehouse; he died just a few weeks later, on February 14, 1975.

Wodehouse continued writing until the end of his life. The last Jeeves & Wooster novel, Aunts Aren’t Gentleman (e-audio), was published in 1974. His writing remained remarkably consistent in style and quality, with none of the decline in linguistic ability that one might expect in old age. The most visible sign of aging was that Wodehouse wrote more slowly, taking about six months to write each of his last few novels, as opposed to the three months he’d needed in his youth.

Also This Week

October 18, 1919

Anita O’Day was born. O’Day was a jazz singer whose recording career spanned 65 years, beginning as a big-band singer in the 1940s. Her distinctive vocal style, she claimed, was the result of a botched childhood tonsillectomy which made her incapable of vibrato or holding long notes; as a result, her singing was more percussive and rhythmic. A variety of O’Day’s music is available for streaming or download at Hoopla and Freegal.

October 16, 1925

Angela Lansbury was born. Lansbury is an actress who has had great success in film (nominated for three Academy Awards), television (nominated for seventeen Emmy Awards), and theater (winner of five Tony Awards). To sample the various stages of her long career, we offer early (1944’s Gaslight, her first film role), middle (the 1971 Disney musical Bedknobs and Broomsticks), and late (the 2015 PBS film of Driving Miss Daisy with James Earl Jones) Lansbury.

October 14, 1939

Ralph Lauren was born. Lauren is a fashion designer who introduced his “Polo” menswear line in 1968. The Polo player logo became an icon of the 1970s when Lauren’s Polo shirts were a key part of the popular “preppy” fashion style. Lauren is also a generous philanthropist and works particularly hard to raise funds for breast cancer research. Michael Gross’s biography of Lauren is Genuine Authentic (e-book | print).

October 16, 1968

African-American athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith gave a Black Power salute during their medal ceremony at the Mexico City Olympics; they also wore (as did the other medalist on the podium, Australian Peter Norman) badges from the Olympic Project for Human Rights, in protest of segregation in the United States. The International Olympic Committee demanded that Carlos and Smith be expelled from the Games; the United States Olympic Committee initially refused but gave in when the IOC threatened to expel the entire United States track team. Carlos’s memoir is called The John Carlos Story (e-book).