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P.G. Wodehouse Jeeves & Wooster

Mark TwainPelham Grenville Wodehouse was born on October 15, 1881, in Guildford, Surrey, the third son of Henry and Eleanor Wodehouse. Both parents descended from ancient aristocratic English families, and Henry was serving as a magistrate resident in the then British colony of Hong Kong. Eleanor was visiting her sister in Guildford when Pelham, who would soon and forever after be known as “Plum,” arrived prematurely.

For the first two years of his life, Wodehouse lived in Hong Kong alongside his older brothers Peveril and Armine, before the three boys returned to England to be raised by an English nanny in a house adjoining their maternal grandparents. The boys rarely saw their parents from then on, an arrangement not uncommon among middle-class families with fathers serving overseas in Britain’s far-flung empire. Though this fraught situation left scars on many children, Wodehouse was fortunate in living a relatively carefree childhood.

At the age of ten, Wodehouse was sent to his third boarding school, Malvern House Preparatory School in Kent, to prepare for a career in the Royal Navy, which was his father’s plan for him. But Wodehouse’s eyesight turned out to be too poor for a future at sea, and so the main thing received from two years of Malvern’s stern discipline and limited curriculum was material for later parody, as when Bertie Wooster recalled his old school, also called Malvern, which he described as a “penitentiary...with the outward guise of a prep school.”

But after only two years at Malvern, Wodehouse was able to join his older brother Armine at Dulwich College, where he would remain for the next six years, a period he looked back on fondly, calling it “like heaven.” He loved the camaraderie, excelled at cricket, rugby, and boxing, sang in school concerts, and got a start to his literary career by editing the school magazine, the Alleynian.

Upon graduating from Dulwich in 1900, Wodehouse expected to follow his brother Armine to Oxford, but the family’s finances, hit hard by fluctuations in the value of the British pound in relation to the rupee (in which his father’s pension was paid), made that impossible. Instead of starting university, Wodehouse took a junior position in the London office of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank in September 1900. It was a bad fit for Wodehouse, whose only outlet was writing in his spare time. He published serious articles about school sports for Public School Magazine, but in November 1900 his first humorous piece, “Men Who Missed Their Own Weddings,” was accepted by Tit-Bits. In two years at the bank, Wodehouse managed to publish eighty pieces in nine different magazines. During that time, he secured a position writing for the Globe’s “By the Way” column, a post he would hold until 1909; and he also wrote his first novel, a school story partially serialized by Public School Magazine and then released in hardcover in September 1902 called The Pothunters. Resigning from the bank that same month, Wodehouse devoted himself to writing full-time, and over the next seven years, he would write or coauthor another ten novels.

In 1904 Wodehouse sailed for the United States, a country he had longed to visit, arriving in New York in April and finding it very much to his liking. It would turn out to be highly remunerative, as well, as British writers who had firsthand experience of America were highly sought after and handsomely paid. It also began for him a second career as a librettist and playwright. Starting with writing the lyrics for “Put Me in My Little Cell” for the musical comedy Sergeant Brue, Wodehouse would go on to write lyrics with composer Jerome Kern, among others, and work successfully on Broadway and London’s West End for nearly thirty years.

It was in 1908 that Wodehouse introduced the first of his most beloved and enduring characters. Psmith (with a silent P, “as in pshrimp,” as Psmith explains) appeared in the serialization of The Lost Lambs (the second half of the novel Mike). Rupert (renamed in his last story “Ronald Eustace”) Psmith is a suave, monocled Etonian dandy with wit and charm, who always seems to come through any difficulty unscathed. His popularity led to three more novels with him as the main character—Psmith in the City (1910), Psmith, Journalist (1915), and Leave It to Psmith (1923).

Bouncing back and forth between England the U.S. for much of this period, Wodehouse was in New York when World War I began. Ineligible to serve due to his poor eyesight, Wodehouse remained in America for the duration of the war. In September 1914 he married the English widow Ethel May Wayman. The marriage would prove to be lifelong. Where Wodehouse was shy and impractical, Ethel was outgoing and organized, and the two remained happily together for more than sixty years. Although they had no children together, Wodehouse legally adopted Ethel’s daughter Leonora from her previous marriage.

It was Wodehouse’s introduction in 1915 of two iconic characters—Bertie Wooster and his gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves—that would make the author immortal. The flighty but affable upper-class peabrain Bertie and the unflappable fixer and fount of all knowledge Jeeves made for an instantly popular and timelessly hilarious comic duo. After “Extricating Young Gussie” appeared in the September 18, 1915, issue of the Saturday Evening Post in the U.S., followed in January in the Strand in Britain, Wodehouse would write another twenty-one Jeeves & Wooster stories over the next ten years, first published with illustrations in both the Strand and Saturday Evening Post (and later in Cosmopolitan), then collected in the books My Man Jeeves (1919), The Inimitable Jeeves (1923), and Carry On, Jeeves (1925). Another eleven stories were collected in Very Good, Jeeves (1930), and the first Jeeves & Wooster novel, Thank You, Jeeves, appeared in 1934. Wodehouse would write a total of thirty-five Jeeves & Wooster stories and eleven novels from 1915 to 1974.

The same year he began the Jeeves & Wooster series, he began another popular series set in fictional Blandings Castle with the novel Something New (retitled Something Fresh in the UK). The stories featured the imperturbable Lord Emsworth, who strove to avoid the distractions of his exuberant brother, domineering sisters, numerous pairs of young lovers, or anything else that would be detrimental to his prize sow, the “Empress of Blandings.” Something New was his first bestseller, and he would write another ten Blandings Castle novels and nine short stories.

Wodehouse’s success led him to a lucrative, but very brief, detour to Hollywood in 1930. On a one-year contract with MGM for $2,000 a week at the height of the Great Depression (terms of which were negotiated by Ethel), Wodehouse was given little to do and chalked up few credits in his time there, though he did find the spare time to write another novel and nine short stories. After his contract ended in 1931 and he left MGM, the 1930s would become the bestselling author’s most productive and successful decade. He averaged two books a year during the ’30s, earning approximately £100,000 annually. Splitting their time between Britain and the U.S., however, created a heavier-than-usual tax burden, as both countries tried to tax him as a resident. So in 1934 the Wodehouses bought a house near Le Touquet, a town across the English Channel on the northern coast of France, where they lived until 1940.

Though he often discounted the literary merit of his own work, Wodehouse must have been especially pleased when the university he was unable to attend for financial reasons, Oxford, conferred an honorary doctorate of letters on him in June 1939. This honor marked the end of an incredibly successful and happy period in Wodehouse’s life and career.

But Wodehouse, who was blissfully nonpolitical and incapable of harboring hostility toward anyone, couldn’t escape the havoc created by the outbreak of World War II. After the German invasion of France in the spring of 1940, and with the Germans advancing toward their home, the Wodehouses decided to drive to Portugal and then fly to America. But their car broke down two miles outside of town, and they were forced to return home on foot. The Germans occupied Le Touquet on May 22, 1940, and after two months interned all male enemy nationals under the age of sixty. Wodehouse, who was fifty-eight, was imprisoned in Loos, a suburb of Lille, while Ethel remained in Le Touquet. Transferred twice more before being transported in September 1940 to Tost in Upper Silesia, a region of Germany now part of Poland, Wodehouse remained in internment despite pressure from the then neutral United States. Although the Germans refused to release him, they did provide him with a typewriter, which he used to write the comic novel Money in the Bank.

It was in June 1941, four months before his sixtieth birthday, that Wodehouse was released from confinement in Tost and brought to Berlin to stay in the luxurious Hotel Adlon. Though it was a marked improvement from his previous accommodations, he was still being held against his will and at his own expense. (He had to use the royalties earned by the German editions of his books, assets the Germans had frozen.) During his stay in Berlin, Wodehouse made the biggest blunder of his life in the public eye. Agreeing to make five broadcasts for German radio to be aired in America on CBS, Wodehouse hosted “How to Be an Internee without Previous Training” from June 28 to August 6, a series that featured his humorous anecdotes about being a prisoner of war. Though they contained no pro-Nazi propaganda (Wodehouse even gently ribbed his captors), the mere fact of his cooperating with the Germans, who broadcast the recordings in Britain after they aired in America, was seen as nothing less than collaboration with the enemy by his countrymen back in England.

Though Wodehouse tried to explain his actions, forgiveness would not come so easily, or anytime soon, not with the war raging for another four years. Unable to leave Germany until September 1943, he and Ethel, who had managed to join him in Berlin, were then allowed to return to France and stayed in Paris until the city was liberated by the Allies on August 25, 1944. Questioned by British authorities and detained by the French until January 1945, Wodehouse was not free to leave the country until June 1946, when he was informed that he would not be facing any charges for his foolhardy actions. Added to this turmoil, in late 1944, the Wodehouses learned that their daughter Leonora, only thirty-nine, had died suddenly during a routine operation.

The Wodehouses returned to New York in April 1947, eventually settling in Remsenburg on Long Island in 1952. Wodehouse had trouble writing at first and found fewer outlets for his creative output in the changed landscape of Manhattan after the war. He didn’t complete a new novel until 1951. The move to Southampton helped, as Wodehouse would publish twenty more novels between 1952 and 1975, as well as two short-story collections, a collection of letters, and a volume of memoirs. Although he had never been able to revive his theatrical career, in 1959 an off-Broadway revival of his 1917 collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton, the musical Leave It to Jane became a surprise hit, running for 928 performances.

Wodehouse never left the United States after arriving in 1947. In 1955 he became an American citizen (though remained a British subject). It wasn’t until 1965 that the British government assured him that he could return to England without fear of prosecution, though by then he felt too old to make the journey. The last time he had set foot in his native country—at the award ceremony to receive his honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford—turned out to be the last time he ever would. He was considered for a knighthood twice after 1967, but it was blocked both times by British officials. In 1974 Prime Minister Harold Wilson intervened to secure a knighthood for Wodehouse, which was announced in January 1975. A month later, on February 14, 1975, Wodehouse died at the age of ninety-three of a heart attack while at Southampton Hospital in Long Island for an unrelated complaint. He was buried by Ethel at Remsenburg Presbyterian Church. She survived him by nine years, living to the age of ninety-nine. P.G. Wodehouse—“Plum” to those who knew him—remains one of the most beloved humorists in the English language, with most of his prolific literary output still in print to this day.