Katherine A. Powers’s Winning Balakian Reviews, Part II: P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters

By Katherine A. Powers

This is the second of the exemplary reviews submitted by National Book Critics Circle member Katherine A. Powers, who was was awarded this year's Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. More from her “A Reading Life” column in Barnes & Noble Review here. Thanks to the generosity of NBCC board member Gregg Barrios, the Balakian now includes a $1,000 award. Submission information for NBCC members here. The next nominations will be in November 2014.

February 8, 2013

P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters

Reviewed by Katherine A. Powers

I was over a hundred pages into P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters before I could square the author of these letters with the person who was England's greatest comic writer, the man with the golden ear and onlie begetter of Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, Psmith, Ukridge, Uncle Fred, Lord Emsworth, the Duchess of Blandings, and a monstrous regiment of aunts. The continuous “feast of reason and flow of the soul” I had expected from the founder of the Drones Club is on show only now and again in this three-quarters-of-a-century epistolary journey. But what is revealingly and disconcertingly present, and what becomes increasingly engrossing, is the down-to-earth, strangely unfrisky human being in which that genius dwelled.

Like most people who earn their bread by the ink of their pens, P. G. Wodehouse took a great interest in money and words produced per day, week, and month, but unlike most scribblers, the figures he ran up in all cases are truly arresting. “Finished yesterday,” he writes in 1933 to his friend the novelist Denis Mackail, “making three novels and 10 short stories in 18 months, which as Variety would say, is nice sugar.” Elsewhere he reports, variously, an 8,000-word story in two days, 40,000 words in three weeks, 55,000 words in one month, and 100,000 words of a novel in two. The pleasure he takes in these numbers is palpable, as is his pride in reporting his earnings, his most lucrative venue being the Saturday Evening Post. Boasting of a serial he had just finished, he tells his old school chum and confidant, Bill Townend, “The good old Satevpost have done me proud…. I mailed them the last part on a Wednesday and got a cheque for $18,000 (my record) on the following Tuesday!!! That's the way to do business.” This is 1922, when $18,000 was the farthest thing from peanuts, as was the next year's $20,000 for another serial — which sums made up only a portion of each year's income.

It is hard to feel happy about one's hero going on in this way — and there is evidence that his friends felt the same. On the other hand, Wodehouse was no “exponent of the one-way pocket,” as one of his bespatted young men has put it. His sense of responsibility and generosity is very much evident throughout. Writing to a friend about his marriage to the twice-widowed Ethel, he says that “for the first time in my life I am absolutely happy. It is a curious thing about it that the anxieties seem to add to the happiness. The knowledge that it is up to me to support someone else has a stimulating effect.” Beyond that, he sent untold amounts of cash to the struggling Bill Townend — gifts kept secret from Ethel, who had, as she did in all matters, strong views on the subject. These financial infusions were not motivated by charity alone but by the obligation the immensely successful Wodehouse felt for having encouraged this friend of his youth to take up what turned out to be a depressingly uncelebrated and unremunerative career as a writer.

Wodehouse's letters may not be the heady brew that his fiction is, but in them his kindness, modesty (in matters nonmonetary), and overall decency shine through, as does his invincible ignorance of the way of the world, a world he seemed to believe had as much aversion to “unpleasantness” as he did. Here we have him writing to Townend in April 1939 (a little over a month after Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia): “Do you know, a feeling is gradually stealing over me that the world has never been farther from a war than it is at present. It has just dawned on the civilians of all countries that the good old days of seeing the boys off in the troop ship are over and that the elderly statesmen who used to talk about giving sons to the country will now jolly well have to give themselves. I think if Hitler really thought there was any chance of a war, he would have nervous prostration.”

That last sentence sets forth the essential Wodehouse, the man whose overriding impulse was to defuse distressing matters with humor, in this case Hitler. Moreover, the passage as a whole displays the insistently irenic, not to say deluded, disposition that led him and his wife to stay on in their house in France even as German troops were crossing the French border. This, in turn, resulted in the fifty-nine-year-old Wodehouse being interned as an enemy civilian, out of which sprang the great misstep of his life: the notorious broadcasts from Berlin in the summer of 1941, aimed at America and disseminated in Britain, and where, once again, he turned to humor for deliverance.

It is abundantly clear from the letters just how oblivious Wodehouse had been to the implications of broadcasting under the auspices of an enemy power, and to how off-key his insouciance would sound to American listeners whose sympathies lay with England, to say nothing of the impression it would make on the English themselves, reeling from the Blitz. In light of what is to come, it is genuinely painful to read his telegram telling his pal actress Maureen O' Sullivan in America to “LISTEN IN TONIGHT…6.00 PM PACIFIC TIME.” Though Wodehouse later admitted widely — including in a letter to the Home Secretary — that “it was criminally foolish of me to speak on the German radio,” it is clear that he never saw the crime in making light of his captivity, believing that it was a demonstration of English doughtiness in the face of adversity.

Rumblings over the broadcasts went on for years and continue to erupt even in our own time. Wodehouse never returned to England, at first because of the threat of being tried for treason and later, it seems, out of chagrin and a reluctance to have the whole sorry business rehashed yet again. He remained wounded, and his letters begin to show a new tartness, including toward a couple of men who had determinedly stuck in the goad: Winston Churchill (“One of the few really unpleasant personalities I've come across”) and A. A. Milne (“A most satisfactory review of A. A. M.'s Chloe Marr in the Daily Mail. In case you missed it, it said that is was the silliest book of the year.”)

Prominent in the letters is Wodehouse's happy marriage, though, as the alert reader easily gathers, the wife of his bosom — high-strung, exacting, and extravagant — would not be every man's ideal. For Wodehouse, mention of personal sexual matters would, of course, be “out of the Q” as Bertie Wooster would put it; still most students of Wodehouse agree that sex seems to have had little place in that union or hardly anywhere else in his life. (In one letter he does mention having had “the clap” in earlier days, but one senses more swagger here than biographical detail.). Ethel's appeal would seem to have lain in her organizational powers, vigilance over his privacy, and companionship. She kept him happy, something we really do believe of this buttoned-up, routine-loving counter of blessings. Furthermore — and, not insignificantly — Ethel also provided Wodehouse with a readymade daughter, Leonora, with whom he formed a strong, loving relationship, as is clear from his many letters to and about her.

In his correspondence, Wodehouse is free with talk of money and work, as mentioned already, and that includes his stints as a lyricist of musical comedies for the stage and his not especially agreeable employment in Hollywood (“It is only occasionally that one feels as if one were serving a term on Devil's Island”). He fondly relates the exploits of his dogs and the satisfactions of his physical regime: the “Daily Dozen,” swimming, walking, and golf. He continues to follow the fortunes on the playing fields of Dulwich College, his old school. He becomes an ardent fan of the soap opera The Edge of Night and the novels of Anthony Trollope and Evelyn Waugh. On the other hand, he doesn't like Dickens, finds Henry James's letters those of “a dull, pompous chump,” and dismisses John O'Hara's work as quite simply “a wave of filth.”

The Wodehouse revealed in the letters, and in editor Sophie Ratcliffe's substantial and helpful commentary, is a self-protective man who increasingly retired from the public eye, though not from the world of letters: “I find in this evening of my life that my principle pleasure is writing stinkers to people who attack me in the press…. One yip out of any of the bastards and they get a beautifully phrased page of vitriol which will haunt them for the rest of their lives.”

Some of the most illuminating entries in the book concern the publication of a selection of letters Wodehouse had written to Bill Townend, a project the former agreed to in order to help out his old friend and, also, he hoped, to neutralize the acrimony caused by his actions in Berlin. With this in mind he wrote to Townend (in a passage inexplicably absent from this book, though present in Robert McCrum's superb Wodehouse: A Life): “I want the reader to say 'Dear old Wodehouse. What a charming nature he must have!  Here are all these people writing nasty things about him, and he remains urbane and humorous. Bless my soul, what a delightful fellow he must be!' “

This became Performing Flea: A Self-Portrait in Letters (the title blithely co-opting the hostile epithet thrown at him by Sean O'Casey). In addition to being an occasional and most genial guide to the practice of writing, the book is a cornucopia of comic embellishment. “The great thing, as I see it,” Wodehouse wrote to Townend, “is not to feel ourselves confined to the actual letters. I mean nobody knows what was actually in the letters, so we can fake as much as we like. That is to say, if in a quickly written letter from — say — Hollywood, I just mention that Winston Churchill was there and I have met him, in the book I can think up some amusing anecdote, describing how his trousers split up the back at the big party or something. See what I'm driving at?” We do indeed, though, in the event, the British Bulldog's overtaxed nether garments did not make it into the book.

In a low moment — occasions of which are far outnumbered by resilient, cheerful ones — Wodehouse wonders where his characters will fit into the postwar world. Writing to Frances Donaldson (later his authorized biographer and editor of an earlier selection of letters) he says, “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.” That was 1945, and the future keeps coming, but Blandings lives on as does the rest of Wodehouse's fictional universe. And for that we are, in Wodehousian parlance, dashed grateful.

Reprinted with permission from Barnes & Noble Review.

Katherine A. Powers received the 2013 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.